19 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 2

[This is the second installment of my 2-part series of archival August Wilson play reports, performances I saw before I started Rick On Theater.  Part 1, which included the linked plays Seven Guitars (1995), set in 1948, and King Hedley II (1999), set in 1985, was posted on 16 March.  I recommend checking it out before or after reading Part 2.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
13 December 2006

I saw the second play in the Signature Theatre’s August Wilson season on Friday, 8 December [2006]:  Two Trains Running, which, in a capsule, has both the pleasures and the problems of most Wilson plays, and it has them in extremis.  The production at Signature’s Peter Norton Space is generally excellent from both the directing and acting perspectives.  (Though, for some reason, several of the cast were still having line problems now and then, even though the play opened the previous Sunday, the 3rd.  Ben Brantley mentions this in his 4 December review in the New York Times; however, he saw the show in a preview and I saw it almost a week after opening.) 

Set in 1969 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Two Trains unfolds in the rundown diner of Memphis Lee (Frankie Faison), the locals’ communal hang-out. The neighborhood is slated for “urban renewal,” and the city intends to exercise eminent domain to raze what remains of the block that includes Memphis’s restaurant.  Memphis owns the rundown building that houses the diner, and the plot begins with his determination to make the city meet his price of $25,000—which he’s unlikely to realize.  But Memphis isn’t the only one wrestling with problems.  The diner’s replete with habitués, some regulars and some strangers, and employees who’re struggling to figure their lives out. Holloway (Arthur French), a bit of secular preacher and the play’s Wilsonian sage, scoffs at the white idea that blacks are lazy, pointing out that they toiled day and night as slaves for hundreds of years, and now that the white man has to pay them, suddenly there are no jobs.  West (Ed Wheeler), the undertaker whose funeral parlor is across the street from Memphis’s diner, has become the richest man in the neighborhood from selling his neighbors expensive caskets and “laying them out in style.”  Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), a mad and damaged soul, spends much of his stage time at the counter over a bowl of beans, periodically shouting, “I want my ham!  He gonna give me my ham!”  Risa (January LaVoy), the diner’s waitress has cut up her legs to make them ugly so men will leave her alone.  Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), a young man who recently got out of prison, just wants some money and a woman.  Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones), the numbers runner, is a dream peddler: his illegal business gives the players the hope of improving their material lives.

One of the chief pleasures of the performance is the ensemble work of the cast.  They really create the sense of a micro-community within that diner, even while each actor creates a character of eccentricity and precise individuality.  That, of course, is one of Wilson’s main strengths—he writes striking characters, each a sort of portrait of someone from Wilson’s life.  They are all actors’ dreams.  Even the most eccentric, oddball character, like Hambone in this play (and Hedley in Seven Guitars), is credible in Wilson’s world and fits right in with the other inhabitants.  Even though you know Wilson has contrived his population this way, it never seems contrived.  (In a coincidence, this is the second Signature company which features a member of the cast of the HBO series The Wire.  Frankie Faison, Memphis in this play, plays the police commissioner in that show and Lance Reddick—Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Seven Guitars—plays now-Colonel Daniels.)

The same is true of his language.  If the characters are all actors’ dream roles, Wilson’s dialogue is a great part of what makes that so.  Wilson writes vernacular poetry, and like other poets of the modern stage—Tennessee Williams, say, or Chekhov and Ibsen—his words never seem out of place even though they are extraordinary speech that sparkles the way no ordinary person could manage to utter.  There was plenty of this in evidence in Two Trains, especially since there is little action in the play so language shares the primary focus with character.  (In his Times review, Brantley called Two Trains one of Wilson’s two—with Jitney—“least eventful” plays.)

As I remarked, I think, in my comments on Seven Guitars [see part 1 of this Wilson archive series, 16 March], Wilson puts his characters into these wonderful little slices of life with each scene.  Two Trains is perhaps more episodic than other Wilson plays, especially Seven Guitars, so there are many, many scenes (separated by brief blackouts, just to emphasize this structure), and each of them could almost stand as a little one-act, a moment from Wilson’s world captured as if in some passing headlight.  And like a gem in a headlight, each one sparkles with life and truth and honesty.   Wilson, as I’ve said several times, draws an absolutely indelible and vivid portrait of a time and place.  It’s more than just photographs, of course, because it’s imbued with his impressions and insights—not to mention that prose poetry.  I imagine actors could mine their parts for months and keep finding new details and aspects.  (If acting classes aren’t full of August Wilson scenes and monologues, I’d be shocked.)

But, of course, this is part also of the problems evident in Two Trains—one of Wilson’s major dramaturgical faults: his lack of plot.  In Seven Guitars, there is the slimmest thread of storyline—and an end we know the play is aiming at.  The play starts with Schoolboy’s funeral, so we know he dies, and then flashes back to the weeks before his death.  We learn quickly that he’s been offered a chance to cut a record in Chicago, but he needs front money to get there.  The play’s not about that, but the story is, and we have that little chain of events to follow: what Schoolboy does that ends up in his death.  There isn’t even that much of a plot in Two Trains—we have no expected ending to pull us along, and no goal someone is trying to reach (except Hambone’s ham, really just a leitmotif, and Memphis’s deal with the city).  There is a theme, however: life and death—the two trains of the title.  Life is represented by, among other elements, the hustle and bustle of the activity in the diner and death is symbolized by the funeral parlor across the street, owned by the neighborhood’s richest citizen and a regular patron of the diner.  But that’s not enough to stitch a play together; as a result, even though the scenes are each golden on their own, it remains a collage of small glimpses of the life of the 1969 Hill District, unlinked causally to a whole.  The scenes don’t connect and there’s no throughline.  (I wonder if this has something to do with the line problems among the cast.)  The only structural connectives in Two Trains are, of course, the consistent presence of the same characters, the recurring references to various subjects—the ham that Hambone feels he’s owed by a local (white) storeowner; the upcoming rally in honor of Malcolm X; the discussions of the unseen (until a later play) character of Aunt Ester; everyone’s pursuit of money—and, obviously, the unvarying locale, Memphis’s diner. 

But the characters are also somewhat disconnected, though they all exist in the same small place when we see them.  (The characters in Seven Guitars are all tied to one another in various ways.)  Most of the men deal with Wolf, the numbers man, but he’s really a peripheral character except when Sterling hits the number and there’s a briefly extended drama of the winner seeking out the runner for his payoff while Wolf avoids him (because the numbers bosses cut the winnings in half when too many people hit it).  Sterling and the waitress, Risa, have a sort of connection—he pursues her, but she mostly resists, and the dance seems cold and perfunctory even though they do connect in the end.  Otherwise, the characters all have their own, private concerns—aside from Hambone’s ham, there is Memphis’s fight with the city to get his price for the diner building which has been condemned to make way for civic improvements, for instance—which they pursue pretty much independently and with little consequence for anyone else.  (In a somewhat odd turn, everyone gets what he or she wants at the end.  Even Hambone gets his ham—when Sterling steals it from the store after Hambone’s death.  Even that death, although unexpected and sudden, isn’t harsh—Hambone dies in his sleep at home in bed.)

Though Wilson’s dramatic worlds are often compared to Chekhov’s, I believe it’s Uta Hagen who replied to the common complaint that nothing happens in a Chekhov play by saying, “Nothing but the end of one world and the beginning of another.”  1969, when the play’s set, would seem like an apt time for such a shift in the lives of African Americans—the end of the era of sanctioned segregation and lawful discrimination and the beginning of the time of black empowerment and hope for a colorblind society, demarcated by the violent deaths of first Malcolm X (1965) and then Martin Luther King (1968) the year before the play takes place.  But Two Trains isn’t about that at all; it’s both smaller than that—local and personal concerns, not national ones—and larger—life and death as the characters experience them day to day, pretty much as we all do.  In the end, there’s no sense of upheaval in Two Trains, just a (very poetic) glimpse into Wilson’s world at one moment in its history.  It’s hardly Chekhovian.

The second dramaturgical problem that is exemplified by Two Trains is that Wilson isn’t a very good editor.  The play runs three hours (plus intermission).  Because the performance started a few minutes late, that meant we didn’t get out of the theater until almost 11:30—a long evening at the theater (and not a very good hour on a cold night to be hanging around far West 42nd Street waiting for a crosstown bus!).  I don’t know if any real damage might have been done to the play if Wilson had cut a few of the scenes, but since they aren’t causally linked to each other, the consequences would seem to have been minimal.  I remember some advice one of my teachers passed along from an editor she had had: “Kill your babies.”  In other words, be ready to cut the parts you really like—a problem I myself have.  (But, then, I don’t write plays—for which there’s probably a very good reason.) 

I remember saying that I saw the 1992 Broadway production of Two Trains but that I remembered seeing Laurence Fishburne (as the ex-con Sterling, played here by Chad L. Coleman—who also appeared in The Wire, though not as a regular) but that I have little recollection of the play.  Now I can understand why—it doesn’t hang together to amount to much as a drama.  It’s a series of moments—wonderful moments, but still just moments.  Wilson’s plays that I’ve seen all have these same problems, some more than others, and I remember saying when I left Fences in 1987, my first encounter with Wilson’s theater, that if it hadn’t been for the performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson that the play wouldn’t be running because so little happened in it.  (Sure enough, when Billy Dee Williams replaced Jones, the play closed in five months.)  Happily, the pleasures of Wilson’s writing outweigh the deficiencies, and I was more than glad to have seen this revival. 

Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
20 February 2007

I went down to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Arena Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the play in Wilson’s Century Cycle covering the first decade of the 20th century.  I had missed it when it ran on Broadway between December 2004 and February 2005 because the production lost an investor shortly before opening and the producers postponed the opening date, canceling some early performances.  I had had tickets during the period of cancellation and couldn’t accommodate the replacement dates the show offered and had to settle for a refund instead.  When I saw while I was in D.C to spend the 2006-07 year-end holidays with my mother that Arena was mounting Gem, I decided to go back down and catch it.

My mother, who subscribes to Arena, and I went to the show on Thursday, 15 February [2007].  A spate of snow and sub-freezing temperatures in Washington had made nighttime driving, especially through Rock Creek Park, potentially treacherous, so Mother took a less direct route and a little extra time to get to the Southwest neighborhood of the Arena Stage.  We also needed to exchange the tickets, originally for the previous evening when bad weather had been forecast, which necessitated a stop at the box office.  Gem of the Ocean, the next-to-last play Wilson wrote in his ten-year cycle (his last two scripts—Radio Golf was Wilson’s last play in the series, written the year he died, 2005—cover the first and last decades of the 20th century), was staged in the Fichandler, Arena’s original theater-in-the-round.  Peter Marks gave the production a good review in the Washington Post ten days earlier (though mentioning its nearly-three-hour length) and despite the bad weather reports, the audience was fairly large at midweek.  (The Moonie Washington Times also came out positive for the production.) 

Marks calls Gem “a lesser achievement” in Wilson’s series, and he’s right.  Compared to Fences, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars, it’s less poetic and more preachy (Marks called it “tipped . . . toward the didactic,” another thing he got right).  It seems as if Wilson had planned this script to launch the panorama by introducing ideas and his general intent as if it were a kind of prologue.  Set in 1904 (precisely 100 years before Wilson wrote it), Gem focuses on the residual legacy of slavery on African Americans, both those born under it (several characters are old enough to have been born in bondage; two had been involved in the Underground Railway) and those born later (the focal character, Citizen Barlow, played here by Jimonn Cole, was so named by his mother to acknowledge his status as a free-born American).  Everyone in the play and those only mentioned are still facing the lasting effects of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, even as they have moved north to Pittsburgh.  (The play is set in the Hill District of Wilson’s native city, where most of the decalogue takes place.) 

There’s a lot of discussion about slavery and its history and its impact, both actual and metaphorical.  As Marks describes it, it’s a history lesson.  And right in the middle of the second act is a symbolic reenactment of the Middle Passage, induced by Aunt Ester (the 235-year-old sage, played by Lynnie Godfrey, who reappears as an unseen figure in Two Trains and in whose house Gem is set) so that Citizen can get right with himself.  Citizen had stolen a bucket of nails from the iron mill and another man had been blamed for the theft and died rather than take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit.  After the hallucinogenic experience, Citizen sets out with Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell) to return to Alabama where Solly’s sister is under such oppression that she cannot even leave the state to come north to escape the privation under which she and other blacks are forced to live.  The two men are going to function as a sort of latter-day Underground Railway (Solly is one of the two characters who had served the Railway during slavery), but when Solly is killed leaving Pittsburgh, Citizen sets out again on his own—a kind of penance for his part in the death of the accused thief and a symbolic connection to the slave past he is too young to have experienced himself.

Ironically, though Gem suffers from many of the same dramaturgical faults of Wilson’s other plays—extreme length, meandering structure, extraneous scenes and ones that go on too long—there is more of a plot here than in most other Wilson scripts.  It’s rudimentary, to be sure, but it’s there.  But this asset is, unhappily, balanced by the nature of Wilson’s language in this script: it is less poetic and lofty than his past writing and there isn’t the thrill of hearing his words roll out of the mouths of the street poets who are his characters.  The characters, though, are every bit as evocative as those that populate his other plays: Citizen, the young newcomer (he still wears “clodhoppers”) caught in the disheartening cycle of economic disenfranchisement that keeps blacks in an underclass from which they can’t escape; Solly, the local philosopher (there’s almost always one in Wilsonland—an American griot); Aunt Ester, the ancient seer and healer; Black Mary (Pascale Armand), the young woman who holds a promise of the future; Caesar Wilkes (LeLand Gantt), Mary’s brother and the local lawman appointed by the white authorities to keep the black ward under control (a kind of reverse scalawag). 

It’s all just too set-up, I think, though; Wilson seems to have contrived this play more to lead into the other nine than to stand on its own as a portrait of an actual time and place.  The circumstances he creates here are much less special and unique than in the other plays I’ve seen.  (After King Hedley II, which I’m booked to see at the end of March—if all goes according to plan—I will have seen all but two of the series: Jitney and Radio Golf.  [As readers will know by now, I saw Jitney in 2017; see my report on 24 February.  King Hedley is part of the first section of this series, posted on 16 March.])  That truly extraordinary sense that you are peeking back at a moment in time, like that episode from Star Trek where the crew watches bits of history unfolding—except that Wilson’s bits are tied to specific people of that time, not just “historical figures”—is missing in Gem, in addition to its more pedestrian language.  It’s as if Wilson was less inspired to write this play, to tell this special story, than that he felt obligated to create an introductory play to get the series started—as if he were not so much moved to write it as duty-bound.

The acting and Paulette Randall’s directing are fine in the Arena production.  The use of the Fichandler, while not inspired, is not a detriment in any way.  (I have seen one other Wilson play at the Arena, Ma Rainey [2002; no report], but it was staged at the Kreeger, the proscenium space.)  The space represents the main room of Aunt Ester’s house, designed by Scott Bradley, encompassing the kitchen, dining area, and sitting room, and the lack of complete realistic detail—it’s a fragmentary set, though what set pieces are present are realistic—doesn’t seem to have any effect on the play in comparison to, say, the totally naturalistic restaurant box of Two Trains or the realistically-rendered backyard setting of Seven Guitars, both at New York City’s Signature Theatre Company. 

Wilson’s plays, like those of Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, authors to whom I’ve heard Wilson compared, are not truly realistic anyway—they’re a heightened, lyrical form of that genre, I think: they look (and sound) like Realism until you examine them a little.  They don’t require realistic trappings to work.  (The only drawback to using the arena space is that the voms, whose floors are built up to be down-ramps into the room—instead of the up-ramps they are normally—make entrances and exits longer than the quick comings and goings of a proscenium box set.  The actors and director have to do a little surreptitious covering to justify the longer crosses in and out of the room.  I’m guessing no one but me and my ilk probably noticed this, however.)  In all other respects (well, that one, too—since the design of the theater isn’t her fault), director Randall, who has mounted several Wilson plays in London (including Gem) does a fine job. 

The cast, led by Jimonn Cole as Citizen Barlow and Lynnie Godfrey as Aunt Ester, is very good, if not as exquisite as the Signature casts I’ve been seeing this season.  (In a coincidence, one cast member, Clayton LeBouef, who plays Eli, Aunt Ester’s caretaker, has also appeared in HBO’s The Wire, in which several actors from both the New York Wilson productions I’ve seen recently have been featured cast members.  LeBouef’s main TV role was Colonel Barnfather, the careerist police commander in the Homicide series.)  If I had to name a standout in the cast, it would have to be Joseph Marcell as Solly Two Kings, the sort of conscience of the Hill District.  Without being flashy or idiosyncratic, Marcell seems to draw attention to Solly, who is always ready to take action in behalf of the community—from guiding slaves to freedom on the Underground Railway, to helping southern blacks escape north when the state authorities prevent it, to setting fire to the mill where the mostly black workers are striking in protest to the new kind of economic slavery they are subjected to now.  A close second, however, is the performance of Pascale Armand as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s cook and housekeeper.  Armand (and Wilson) have created what must be the progenitor of the modern black woman, the pre-feminist, pre-civil rights independent woman who even stands up to Aunt Ester to do things her own way.  (Aunt Ester’s response: “What took you so long!”)

The single acting fault I saw is Godfrey’s habit of speaking awfully fast as Aunt Ester.  She didn’t overact the age (how do you act 235, anyway?) or, in my opinion, overdo the Southern accent (though Mom complained about that), but she spoke so fast that I had to concentrate on her dialogue just in order to hear the words.  No one else had this difficulty so it wasn’t the fault of the acoustics or the direction I don’t think.  That Aunt Ester is such a central role in Gem means that this is more of a problem than it might otherwise be.

Obviously, for all its problems and deficiencies, Gem of the Ocean still has its Wilsonian pleasures.  It isn’t the gem its title suggests (that Gem is the name of the slave ship that symbolically carries Citizen to his redemption), but it’s still August Wilson.  As I’ve said of other major playwrights, most notably Stephen Sondheim, even bad August Wilson—and this wasn’t remotely that—is still better than 90 per cent of everything else that’s out there at its best.  And even if his dramaturgy is flawed, this is still a writer with something on his mind, something provocative, interesting, and worthy.  God knows, not every playwright can claim that these days.

[For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.]

16 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 1

[On 24 February, I posted a report on the Broadway première of August Wilson’s Jitney, the last of the playwright’s 10-play Century Cycle to make it to the Great White Way.  It was also the ninth of Wilson’s cycle plays that I’ve seen; I’m missing only Radio Golf now, the play that covers the 20th century’s final decade and the last play Wilson composed before his death in October 2005.  (He saw Radio Golf début at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2005, but didn’t survive to see it open on Broadway two years later.) 

[I started Rick On Theater on 16 March 2009, eight years ago today, so there are many play reports I wrote before I launched the blog in what I call my archive, which stretches back to the 1970s, soon after I moved to New York City.  (There are also, as you’ll hear, many plays that I never wrote about as well; I didn’t start writing up all the plays I see until 2003.)  Of the now nine Wilson cycle plays I’ve seen, I’ve posted blog reports on The Piano Lesson (13 December 2012);and Jitney.  (There’s also a report on How I Learned What I Learned, 30 December 2013, Wilson’s solo performance piece he didn’t live to deliver in New York City; I saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson perform it.)  The plays I saw when I wasn’t writing them up were Fences (July 1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Fall 1996), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Fall 2002); there are no reports on those three.  I also saw the Broadway premières of Two Trains Running in May 1992 and Seven Guitars in May 1996, before I regularly reported on performances, but I saw them again Off-Broadway in December and October 2006, and I did write about those productions.  (Two Trains will be in Part 2 of this short series.) 

[When I wrote the report on Jitney, I suggested that I might post my archival reports on the August Wilson plays I saw before ROT existed.  In the second part of this archival series, I’ll post the reports on Two Trains, the cycle play that covers the 1960s, and Gem of the Ocean, the one about the 1900s.  Below, in Part 1 of “From My August Wilson Archive,” I’m presenting my reports on Seven Guitars and King Hedley II, the only two plays in Wilson’s series that are narratively linked: Seven Guitars, set in 1948, includes a character named King Hedley and the title character of King Hedley II, set 12 years later, is an unborn child in Seven Guitars who’s named for Hedley.  I thought it’d be appropriate to present these two old reports together for that reason.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
22 October 2006

Diana, my subscription partner, and I managed to get to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars Friday evening, 13 October [2006]—but it was touch-and-go for a moment.  We just seem to have bad luck with that show!  Our originally-scheduled performance at the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street last month was canceled at the last minute—we had actually gotten to the theater before we learned—because a member of the cast got sick and Signature Theatre doesn’t use understudies.  Friday night, an actor had an accident on stage (or just off stage—I’m not sure where it happened exactly) and apparently gave himself a small cut just above his right eye.  They had to stop the scene—one early in the show—so he could exit and have it attended to backstage.  Then they returned about 15 minutes later, rewound a few beats, and picked up again.  Since I haven’t seen any other performances, I don’t have the basis for a real judgment, but as far as I could tell, the work was as strong as it probably would have been if they hadn’t had the mishap and the interruption.  

I suppose that’s the big “news” for this show, which is about Pittsburgh Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton.  Set in the back yard of a dilapidated house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, the Second World War has been over for just three years.  At the start of the play, Floyd’s friends have gathered after his funeral; he died suddenly and inexplicably.  (This production was staged just 10 months after Wilson’s own death at 60 from liver cancer.  The plans for STC’s August Wilson season were laid before the playwright announced he was ill.)  Then the play flashes back to the week leading to Floyd’s death.

Just released from jail, Floyd’s invited to sign a record deal when a song he recorded months earlier becomes an unexpected hit.  After a year of difficulties, Floyd is ready to correct the mistakes of past years and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what's important in his life.  Unfortunately his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.

The acting (and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s directing) was superb.  This was one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time—everyone was solid, alive, and in touch with one another; no one seemed to be overshadowing anyone else, and they were all in the same play.  I’ll single out two performers, but mostly because of their characters—though, of course, it’s important to add that the actors communicated those characters exceptionally.  First, Kevin T. Carroll, who plays Canewell, just seemed to be in a  kind of special spotlight (not literally, of course).  I can’t really say why his performance stood out for me—he was just real, though so were his comrades, and at the same time, special.  I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here, but what it felt like to me was that Carroll wasn’t doing straight Stanislavsky, with all that inside work.  It seemed as if he was working from some portion of the British method, which is more technical.  Not exclusively—he didn’t come off as technical.  You can often tell when one actor in a cast is working externally while the rest are working internally.  No, what I felt was that he somehow blended the two techniques so that he enhanced the Stanislavskian verisimilitude so that his Canewell was more sharply etched.  I don’t even know if that makes any sense.  (This is the role for which Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director of this revival, got his 1996 supporting-actor Tony.)

The other actor who stood out was Charles Weldon who plays Hedley.  The character is a little contrived—Wilson makes him slightly nuts so that he can get away with being oversized and outrageous—but Weldon pulls it off marvelously.  (I will cavil that his accent was a little confusing.  At first I thought the character was West Indian—I saw this play back when it was on Broadway in ‘96, but I don’t recall this aspect of the role—but I realized from the lines that he’s from Louisiana, and it’s Cajun-spiced speech—bayou English, I guess (as opposed to Louis Armstrong “Southern Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t a significant problem.)  Hedley, of course, is the character that connects to the ’80s play in the series (Seven Guitars is set in 1948), King Hedley II.  (One of the women in Seven Guitars, Ruby, played by Cassandra Freeman, is pregnant, and even though Hedley—whose actual first name is King—isn’t the father, Ruby says she’ll name the child after him; that would make the child ”King Hedley II.”)

By the way, there’s a cop series on now, The Wire on Showtime cable [it ran from 2002 to 2008].  Well, the actor who plays Floyd Barton, the focal character of Seven Guitars, is Lance Reddick who plays Lieutenant—now Captain—Daniels in that show.  (He’s the actor who had the accident at the start of the performance.)

Seven Guitars is really a study in Wilson’s work.  He writes terrific characters—characters that actors can just devour—and he captures a milieu, both a moment in time and a place in the world, that sparkles and shines.  Santiago-Hudson and the actors nailed this just about perfectly, I’d say—with tremendous assistance from Richard Hoover’s set.  (I remember complaining about an Arena Stage production of Awake and Sing! back in February that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play’s world.  That was decidedly not true of this troupe.)  

Wilson also writes soaring dialogue that is absolutely vernacular prose poetry.  It sounds both natural and extraordinary at the same time.  And he conjures wonderful scenes, little moments of truth and life that are simply magic on stage.  But his plots are rudimentary and meandering.  He doesn’t tell stories—which is certainly his right as a dramatist; he shoots word-photographs, snapshots of a certain world.  It can get a little frustrating watching as he lets his plays go off on little side trips or stay put for a little extra while.  (Wilson’s plays aren’t short.  He’s also not an editor.)  And even when his plot does come to fruition, it’s not necessarily a surprise or a particularly significant event.  The journey, not the destination, is his focus.  But that can be hard on the spectator, I think.  (I remember saying to my companion after seeing Fences with James Earl Jones that if it weren’t for Jones’s performance, the play wouldn’t be very interesting because so little actually happens.  I can’t prove it’s related, but shortly after Jones was replaced by Billie Dee Williams on 2 February 1988, the play closed—on 26 June.)

One costume question, however:  When did seamless stockings arrive on the market?  In one scene, one of the women strikes a deliberately provocative pose and asks, “Are my stockings straight?”  But they were seamless, so how could anyone really tell?  In 1948, wouldn’t women still have been wearing stockings with seams?  Small point.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I managed to see the production.  It takes an exceptional production to overcome Wilson’s dramaturgical problems, and this one qualifies, no question. 

The next Wilson at the Signature, which I’m not seeing until December, is Two Trains Running, which I also saw on Broadway (with Laurence Fishburne).  I’ve heard that the regular run at STC was sold out within a few days of opening the sales to the public (since Diana and I subscribe, we get advanced notice to book our seats), the run was extended, and the extension is sold out.  (The regular runs are all $15 seats this season [it’s now up to $30] due to a subsidy the Signature got.  The extensions, however, go for $55 a pop.)   King Hedley II is the third play in the season, and I haven’t seen that one before.  (Actually, I’ve been expecting some theater to announce a presentation of Wilson’s complete cycle since his death, but so far no one I’ve heard about has done so.  My mom told me, though, that the Kennedy Center has announced a series of staged readings of all the plays next year.  [In 1986, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre became the first company in the world to launch productions of the entire 10-play cycle, concluding in 2007 with Radio Golf.  The first company to produce the cycle after Wilson’s death was the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, which from 2007 to 2011 presented the 10 plays in order of their setting.])

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
3 April 2007

Well, I saw the last of the August Wilson series at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space Friday night, 30 March [2007].  (I have now seen eight of the ten plays in Wilson’s decalogue of the African-American experience.  I missed Jitney, and Radio Golf, his last play, opens on Broadway later this month for previews.)  I can say that King Hedley II measures up creditably to the two previous Wilson shows at Signature (and Gem of the Ocean at Arena which I saw in February.) in terms of production, and especially the acting.  (Charles Isherwood’s Times review earlier in March, which was a near rave, pointed out that Hedley’s Broadway run had been miscast with Brian Stokes Mitchell, a romantic lead usually appearing in musicals, in the title role.  I can now see how that would throw off the dynamic of the play.  I didn’t see the 2001 Broadway production—this was the only play in the Signature series that I hadn’t seen before—mostly because it only ran two months and I didn’t get to it before it closed.  By many accounts—some critics actually didn’t like it—this production is better an all ways, and I don’t doubt it.)

Though occasional characters do figure in more than one of Wilson’s plays (Sterling Johnson, the ex-con of Two Trains Running, reappears in Radio Golf; Aunt Ester, the focal character of Gem, is mentioned both in this play, in which her death is reported, and in Two Trains—though she doesn’t appear in either of the last two), King Hedley II is the only play that is actually a kind of sequel to a previous one.  Set in 1985 or so, Hedley picks up the story of Ruby (Linda Gravatt) from Seven Guitars, set in 1948.  She had arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District from Alabama, pregnant and fleeing a violent situation in which the baby’s father had been killed by a rival.  Living in the house of Louise, she became acquainted with the off-balance Hedley—a Louisianan whose given name was King—and in an act of empathy, decided to name her unborn baby after him as if Hedley were its father.  Thirty-seven years later, Louise, who raised the boy in Ruby’s absence, has died and Ruby has returned to the Hill District—and her son (Russell Hornsby), who has recently been released after seven years in prison for killing a neighborhood antagonist—to a house next door to Canewell (now known as Stool Pigeon; Lou Meyers), a fellow musician of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who also lived in Louise’s house in 1948.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon is now the slightly unbalanced character, the seer and griot who appears in almost all Wilson’s plays, having become something of a religious fanatic.  “God’s a bad motherfucker!” he warns us every now and then.)  King Hedley II, the title character and focal figure of the play, has rejected Ruby for abandoning him, though he knows “Mama Louise” wasn’t his actual mother.  He does believe, however, that Hedley was his father, and Ruby doesn’t want him to know different.  (This truth will ultimately light the fuse that implodes King’s world.)

King is immediately revealed to be a bitter, angry, self-centered, and violent man and I wondered how Wilson was going to make him the play’s protagonist, even hero, without simply brushing aside the fact that he’s pretty much a bad man.  Aside from having killed another man, essentially for consistently calling him “Champ” when he insists his name is King—in a confrontation born of this conflict, the other man had slashed King’s face and King hunted him down later and shot him numerous times in broad daylight in a barber shop—King makes his money to support his wife and unborn child by selling stolen goods (refrigerators at the moment) and committing armed robbery.  He always carries a Glock automatic pistol (the cousin of the man he killed is looking for him) and at the slightest provocation, intentional or not, bursts out in threats of violence and uncontrolled anger.  (King tells of an incident at school when a teacher grabbed him and he kicked her, after which he was permanently branded “unruly.”  He obviously can’t see it, but that’s an understatement.)  Now, you can psychologize about the roots and causes of King’s temper and tendency to violence—his abandonment, the lack of opportunity, the unfair treatment he’d been subjected to all his life, the heritage of his real father—but in the end, he’s a violent thug (with, given Wilson’s hand in his creation, a poetic tongue).  Yet he’s the center of the play, and it was hard to imagine how Wilson was going to construct a play around him.  Be assured, he does—and it’s not a cheat.

In all of Wilson’s other plays I’ve seen, there’s some kind of redemption at the end.  In some, like Two Trains, everyone pretty much gets what they’ve been chasing after; in others, like Gem, a stormy sea is crossed, a corner turned.  Even in Seven Guitars, in which the action is inexorably leading to the death of Floyd Barton (the play’s a flashback: the opening scene takes place right after his funeral), that event acts as a kind of catalyst for the transformation of other characters.  But Hedley is a tragedy—I think you can call it that, in Wilsonian terms in any case.  No matter what he does, no matter what anyone else does, King is heading for disaster.  He doesn’t get anything right—every choice he makes, no matter what advice he gets, is wrong and you can see him careening toward a bad end, like a runaway car rolling downhill, gaining speed on its way down.  (It is ironic that King wants money for him and his buddy so they can open a video store—a business we know will become doomed in a decade or two.  I suspect Wilson knew that when he wrote the play in 1999.)  The configuration of his end is a surprise, but you know it’s going to be bad.  (I’m loath to reveal the end beyond this in case anyone of you hasn’t seen the play and still might.  It’s so clear King’s fate is going to be bad, telling you that isn’t a spoiler, but any more might be.)

What Wilson seems to be doing is including in his panorama of life in black America a picture of the less redemptive side of that world—the violent, brutish, nasty aspect that results in some cases from the never-ending sense of never being allowed to get up off your knees.  The Reagonomic 80s, the decade of greed that drove the permanent wedge between the working people and the Midas-like CEO’s, is the perfect matrix.  “I used to be worth twelve hundred dollars during slavery,” King laments. “Now I’m worth $3.35 an hour.  I’m going backwards.  Everybody else moving forward.”  

Even King’s legit job, working deconstruction, is a trap.  His (African-American) boss has put in the lowest bid for a demolition job, but loses the contract because the contractor says the bid’s too low!  (The demolition man is in court to force the contractor to honor the rules, and he actually wins, but it comes too late for King.)  Even the small things seem part of the conspiracy: King goes to Sears to get his wife’s photo taken, but when he returns to collect the portrait, the clerk tells him there’s no record of the job, and the receipt King shows him doesn’t mean anything.  It’s not an excuse: Wilson never apologizes or excuses King, but he does show us the increments by which that man becomes part of society.  And just to clinch the fact that Wilson doesn’t put the blame for everything on white society or the establishment, King’s death doesn’t come at the hands of any of those forces—it comes from one of his own.  And it comes out of his own past, his heritage, you might say.

The acting and directing (by Derrick Sanders, founder of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre where his production of Seven Guitars won a Joseph Jefferson Award) are, once again, excellent.  Wilson has lots of dramaturgical problems, as I’ve observed before.  (Hedley, though it has more plot than most other Wilson plays, still clocks in at just under 3 hours.)  And while they’re not insignificant deficiencies, he still writes plays that are more than worthy of attention because of what he says and the wonderful language in which he says it.  His characters are so vivid, and his individual scenes so powerful that he attracts top actors, making the productions special pleasures for audiences.  (In a break with the trend I spotted up to now, this cast has no actors who list either The Wire or Homicide as credits. [I mention this in my reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean, both in part 2 of this Wilson archive series, 19 March.]  All three of the other Wilsons I saw this season had at least one actor who worked those shows.  One actor, however, did appear in an earlier Wilson at the Signature: Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Elmore, Ruby’s former lover for whom she left Pittsburgh and King, but he played Red Carter, one of Floyd Barton’s musicians, in Seven Guitars.  Ironically, Mister (Curtis McClarin), King’s running buddy in this play, is Carter’s son.  Henderson also appeared as Stool Pigeon on Broadway.) 

While everyone gives a strong performance, the standout has to be Russell Hornsby as King.  While he assuredly doesn’t play for sympathy, his most remarkable achievement in the role is that he manages to make King seem like a reasonable man until he erupts.  (Early in the play, and several times afterwards, he asks other characters if they see a halo around his head.  This is the residue of a dream he had—but, of course, no one sees anything.  That he takes the vision seriously says something about who King might have been if things—everything—had been different.)  This is no Bill Sykes villain, no psychotic bully, but a man with a hair trigger.  It doesn’t take much to set him off, but until something does, he’s just a rough guy in a rough part of town.  (It is easy to see why an actor like Brian Stokes Mitchell would be wrong for this role.  It’d have been a little like seeing Cary Grant switch parts with, say, Charles Bronson.  In Kabuki terms, King is an aragoto—rough style—part, but Mitchell is a wagoto—soft style—actor.  I also can’t see Leslie Uggams as King’s mother, Ruby, played with an earthy force here by Lynda Gravatt.  If a star were needed, Della Reese would have been a better choice.)  Once again, however, the actors each carved out a distinct, credible, unique, and wholly believable person—I don’t want to say “character.” 

Speaking of acting: for some reason I was really focusing on the dialogue this time.  I don’t know why—it wasn’t as if the cast weren’t doing anything else—but I was listening to the actors speak Wilson’s lines.  I believe I’ve compared Wilson’s language to that of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams before.  They all share something in common: They write dialogue that at first sounds like ordinary speech, but isn’t.  They all write a heightened, a lyric Realism.  Spectators think they are hearing common speech, but no one really talks that eloquently, that expressively, that aptly, that poetically.  (This was a quality that was missing in Gem of the Ocean, I noted. [See part 2 of thus series, 19 March.])  Of course, the actors have to sense this because they have to voice these extraordinary words without either crossing over into “declaiming verse” or falling into Mamet-speak, maintaining the illusion that they are talking ordinary street talk.  Obviously, Wilson’s language is one of his main attractions for actors, and Signature’s casts have been excellent at doing this.  (There are some magnificent monologues in Hedley—make a note, all you acting teachers with African-American students!  Look especially at Tonya’s blistering explanation of why she doesn’t want to bear King’s son.) 

But listening specifically to the lines confirms something that makes the work of writers like Wilson really exceptional.  When I first taught writing, the text we were using made a point that has always stayed with me for some reason: “While we think of eloquence as being expressed in literary language, it is really the spirit that counts, not the words.”  The example the book had given for eloquence was a passage by Jesse Jackson in which he used the most commonplace diction to express the loftiest sentiments.  That’s what Wilson, Williams, Chekhov, and Ibsen do (taking into account for the last two that they were writing in the 19th century and we read them in translations): The words they use are perfectly ordinary, their syntax is simple—which is why we think we’re listening to common speech—but they assemble those elements to produce the most amazing images and sounds!  Now, I don’t think this is a revelation, of course.  Theater people—and I suspect literary people, too—recognize it.  Actors and directors certainly do.  But I do think that it’s an underestimatedly awesome achievement.  It comes close to pure magic.  Maybe “close” is an unnecessary equivocation.

I need to make a brief note about the set.  David Gallo, who also designed the Broadway sets (and Radio Golf as well, it seems), conceived a hyperrealistic backyard of two decrepit houses—one missing its top floor.  The two yards, Canewell’s and Louise’s, are contiguous and nothing but stony dirt, bound on two sides by rusted chain-link fences.  (King insists on planting flowers in a plot of it, but it’s not soil—it’s dirt.  Nonetheless, he coaxes life from the seeds!)  It is Wilson’s blasted heath, the barren terrain of Beckett’s Godot (without even the bare tree).  It is perfectly evocative of the dilapidated world and lives of King and his companions.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon fills his house with discarded newspapers, his historical records—You got to know this!—like a Collyer brother; but his yard remains barren even as he buries Aunt Ester’s cat there, near King’s flower patch.  The flowers poke through the dusty earth—and the cat gives signs of resurrection!)  

A question I had, however—not especially important, I suppose—is whether this was supposed to be the same backyard as depicted in Seven Guitars.  I figure it is, but Gallo didn’t attempt to duplicate Richard Hoover’s set as it might have become 37 years later.  There’s no real reason he needed to, if I’m even right—though costume designer Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, says that it’s “practically the same back yard, only forty years later”; notes in a theater newsletter report that an urban renewal in the 1950’s known as the “Pittsburgh Renaissance” displaced many Hill residents, and maybe the old house has been demolished—but it might have been interesting, since most of the audience for Hedley would be Signature season subscribers and would have seen the earlier play, to make the connection.

I’m often a sucker for gimmicks, as you’ve no doubt discovered—especially clever ones.  Note the use by the Theater for a New Audience of the computer monitors to display the usual cell phone warning in Italian, English, and Hebrew/Yiddish before its production of Merchant of Venice [see my report, “TFANA’s Merchant of Venice (2007),” 28 February 2011].  Director Sanders has done his own version of this.  Using a radio broadcasting a local Pittsburgh station playing 80s rock music during preset, scene changes, and intermission, the DJ breaks in before opening curtain and, as if announcing a song or selling a product, makes the cell phone announcement.

Just a footnote, which some of you may already know:  The Kennedy Center in Washington is planning to do all ten of Wilson’s plays of this series in staged readings over a month in March ’08.  Apparently Signature intended to produce all ten of the plays, plus a new one, Wilson’s first after the completion of his decalogue, but when the playwright died suddenly in 2005, those plans were changed.  (In fact, Signature almost had to cancel the August Wilson Season altogether.)  So, unless another theater jumps in before the Kennedy Center gets underway, this will be the first Wilson marathon since he completed the cycle.

[I hope you found these old reports interesting—and maybe even illuminating.  Please come back on 19 March for the conclusion of this two-part series, “From My August Wilson Archive,” for the reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean.  (For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.)] 

11 March 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 6

[Thank you for returning to ROT for the sixth installment of my “Berlin Memoir,” a chronicle of my adventures on and off duty while I served in West Berlin as a counterintelligence agent in the 1970s.  Part 6 covers several of the activities in which I engaged both as part of my MI assignment and in my leisure time; a large section of this segment of “Berlin Memoir” is devoted to my attendance at a German military intelligence school.  For readers who haven’t been following the series, I strongly recommend going back and reading Parts 1 through 5 before going on to Part 6 below.  I use some jargon and some German expressions which are defined and explained in the earlier sections and some topics mentioned below are more fully described in the first sections.  (Parts 1 through 5 were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, and 20 January, and 9 and 15 February 2017, respectively).] 

I had a little taste of the absurd side of MI duty in Berlin on my way to the city.  I flew out of McGuire AFB in Bordentown, New Jersey, on a MATS flight.  (Not a troop carrier, but a chartered airliner—we had seats and everything.)  I had to wear my uni, of course, but that flight only went to Frankfurt where most of the other GI’s, the majority of whom were EM’s, were supposed to assemble for transfer to their units by truck or train.  I changed to a Pan Am flight to Berlin, and my sponsor had told me that I was expected to arrive in Berlin in civvies.  So I had to duck into a restroom and change from my Class A’s into a suit.  I was already doing spook stuff.  (I remember the suit I wore—it was one of the Baltimore acquisitions—a light gray, pin-striped double-breasted with stovepipe trouser legs.  I believe the shirt I wore with it was a dark blue one with red and yellow stripes and a long collar.  My tie was probably wide, and some bright contrasting color.  Chuck Lurey was the first to remark on my, ummm . . . sartorial splendor.  That was my first hint.)

I said there was occasional actual danger.  There was, but it was very occasional.  I mentioned that every month or so, there’d be a firing incident at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie.  I was never near any of those, of course, but they were part of our consciousness.  Of course, you know about the fear of kidnapping.  This was actually going on, though most kidnapping victims were German businessmen grabbed by anarchist cells like the RAF.  (As I also reported, they also liked to blow things up.  Aside from the Farben building in Frankfurt where the young officer I had met was killed in a blast, on 2 February 1972, the Movement 2 June, affiliated with the RAF, set one off at the British recreation center on the Wannsee in Berlin—and killed Irwin Beelitz, a sweet old man, a German who was caretaker at the facility, had no connection to anything governmental except that he was paid by the Brits, and whom everyone loved.) 

The Soviets seldom actually kidnapped anyone, but the fear existed that, if we were caught in the SZOG or East Berlin, we could be arrested on some pretense and carried off to Potsdam or Moscow and interrogated.  This, of course, was the rationale for the pledge demanded of civilian airlines that they wouldn’t land in East Germany, the prohibition on travel into East Berlin and the SZOG (and entry into an S-Bahn station), and the later requirement that we get escorts to drive through the SZOG.  It was also the backstory of the incident that closed down Berlin because my CID partner reported that I’d been kidnapped.  Of course, people were killed while I was in Berlin, but by the RAF and other radical groups, not by the East Germans or the Soviets. 

There was, however, also a large population of Turks in Berlin—originally guest-workers who stayed on.  They constituted the criminal element in the city the way the Italians did here in the ’30s and the Colombian drug gangs did in the ’80s.  They were violent, nasty, and heavily armed, and into most criminal activities that could be imagined, including smuggling, gun-running, dope trafficking, white slavery, pornography, and so on.  Just before I arrived in Berlin, there had been a pitched battle downtown between the cops and a Turkish gang armed with machine guns.  Nothing like that happened while I was there, but, again, it hung over us when we were out in the field.  We weren’t usually armed, so we were vulnerable if anything did happen.  I remember doing a surveillance in Kreuzberg, one that ended disastrously (if humorously).  Kreuzberg was like the South Bronx of Berlin, and was heavily populated by Turks.  We drove German-plated cars to the surveillance apartment, but we parked some blocks away and walked to the apartment.  I had the red-eye shift, midnight to 8 a.m., so it was the middle of the night when I arrived.  I had my heart in my throat more than once getting to the surveillance, as I did a few other times in districts like Kreuzberg when I was alone.  Nothing ever actually happened, but it all didn’t do my heart much good.

By the way, because of a security concern similar to the kidnapping fear, if an MI agent ever had to go under anesthesia, we had to be monitored in the OR by another agent.  (I recall an incident like this in the TV M*A*S*H with that kooky MI officer Colonel Flagg, played by Edward Winter, who made recurring appearances.  Parenthetically, that show ran on AFRTS and was quite popular.)  This was because the usual anesthetic was sodium pentothal, which is also “truth serum.”  The Army was worried that someone might start questioning us about classified stuff while we were under!  The agent wouldn’t stop the procedure, but he would prevent any untoward interrogation.  (I never actually heard of an instance of this provision having been invoked in Berlin, though I’m sure it was somewhere.)

Life in Berlin, outside of work, was terrific.  I said that by this time, city life had redeveloped, and there were lots of restaurants, good shops (the Kurfürstendamm—Ku’damm to GI’s—was a world-famous shopping street, the 5th Avenue of Berlin), many museums (a wonderful one, the Dahlem Museum for both art and ethnology, was right in our neighborhood), and other sites (the Charlottenburg Palace, the Kaiser’s residence in Berlin, was like a Germanic Versailles).  Since I was not shy about going out and about, like some GI’s often are, and because I spoke German, I explored all over the city, both with my colleagues and friends and by myself.  (I remember wandering around downtown West Berlin looking for a somewhat obscure site that was the preserved warehouse-like room in which the would-be assassins of Hitler had been briefly imprisoned before they were executed.  I found it then—I doubt I could ever find it again on my own.) 

Our quarters in Berlin, which I said were the best in USAREUR (and, maybe even anywhere, including stateside), were full apartments.  BOQ’s were one-bedrooms in a garden-apartment complex about a half mile down the road from the PX and commissary.  It was like living in a suburb somewhere in the states.  Married officers had larger places nearby, and NCO’s with families had equally nice apartments in high-rises further out.  Senior officers with families had houses in a development that looked exactly like a residential community outside an American town somewhere.  (Except all the buildings were German—there was a very recognizable architectural style of post-war German construction from the ’50s and ’60s.  It was very familiar!  Many Amis in Germany used to call the States “the land of the round doorknobs” because all European doors had handles, not knobs.  I always thought of the U.S. as the land of the sash windows—as opposed to the casement windoes that swing in from hinges along the sides.  It’s impossible to keep anything on a windowsill with those kinds of windows and you can’t keep the curtains closed with the casements open.)

Our EM’s by the way, got a really good set-up.  For obvious reasons, they couldn’t be assigned to a barracks with other GI’s so they had to be housed some place else.  They could have been set up in some separate apartment, say one of the NCO high-rises, but I suppose that would have drawn too much attention.  Putting them up in a civilian house was viable, I suppose, but the expense and the security problem were probably prohibitive.  But we had a ready-made situation which would be mutually beneficial.  The Station EM’s were housed in the safe houses we had around the city.  They got a house to live in, with a kitchen and separate bedrooms, a living room and dining room, even a yard—all the luxuries—and we got someone to keep up the appearance of residents in the house so it wouldn’t attract attention as an empty house into which various Amis occasional snuck.  (When an agent needed the house for an interview, the GI’s living there just made themselves scarce in some other part of the house.)  Each house had a senior NCO (who was assigned a station car for transportation) and he and the other EM’s would act as security for the property as well.  Can’t beat it with a stick!  (I can’t say for sure that no other unit in 66th MI had this set up, but I don’t think any did, at least not in Germany.  In the Zone, our units were treated much more like the line units—most wore uniforms on duty and weren’t even as low-profile as we were.  Stations in Vicenza, Italy, or Rota, Spain, may have had similar arrangements—for the housing, not necessarily for the rest—because they were so much smaller bases of U.S. Forces.  I don’t know that that was true, however; Berlin is the only place I know that did this.  I said it was the best duty station in Europe.)

We were a sociable bunch at Berlin Station—lots of parties.  I’m sure this was as much because we were forced to associate mostly with each other as it was because Army families just like to party.  As I’ve said, our parties included both the officers and the EM’s, and one of the NCO’s was famous for the way he signaled the end of the party at his BEQ.  He just lay down on the floor and went to sleep.  Guests could stay on if they wanted, but he was plainly saying he was ready for the party to end.  And it did—for him. 

Shortly after I got to Berlin, my sponsor, who had gotten married just before I arrived, threw a cocktail party to introduce his new wife to everyone “officially.”  Now, both Chuck and Ro Lurey were military brats—his dad was a retired Army colonel (I think that was his rank) and hers was a former Marine major, both of whom had gone into USAID after retirement.  Chuck and Ro had met in Laos, where their parents were serving, as teenagers or young college kids.  Naturally, they featured some Laotian delicacies among the hors d’oeuvres.  So, we’re all smokin’ and jokin’, just standing around cocktail-party style and chatting, and I’m nibbling at finger-food like everyone else.  At one point, I’m standing next to a bowl of carrots.  They just looked like raw carrots—what we’d now call “crudités.”  I’m talking with someone, and I reach over and grab a couple—and I’m surprised to find that they’re soft, but I didn’t think anything more of that and popped one in my mouth.  And my mouth caught on fire!  I mean, like I downed a lit glass of grain alcohol or something.  What I had had no idea of was that these were Laotian pickled carrots, as sharp as the hottest pepper.  I remember a Perry Mason episode in which Perry, Della, and Paul go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner after a case, and Paul brags about how he can handle any of the spicy Mexican peppers, and swallows one.  There’s a beat.  Then he leaps for a pitcher of water and just downs the whole thing.  Well, that’s what I felt like.  My host said later that he had seen me out of the corner of his eye as I reached for the carrot, but he figured I knew what I was doing so he didn’t say anything.  WRONG!  Big joke, huh?

We also had the Harnack House, the O-club.  As I said, it was one the best in USAREUR, maybe the whole Army.  (There were enlisted personnel clubs and NCO clubs, which were also top flight, but I didn’t sample them myself, of course.)  We officers all ate at the O-club fairly often, if not for dinner then for lunch—and most of our more formal unit functions were there.  But the one really unique thing there was a special meal after a special event.  Berlin has a counterpart of Central Park, though it’s much wilder: the Grunewald.  The Germans love their outdoors—they’re inveterate hikers and walkers and Germany was one of the few countries in Europe that never deforested its countryside—and the Grunewald was more like woods than a simple park.  (The name means “green wood” or “green forest.”)  And it had boar, known among the GI’s as “grunie pigs,” living in it.  The boar population, however, was uncontrolled and every year it got too large for the park to sustain.  So there was an annual boar hunt to which senior Allied officers and diplomats were always invited—from all over Europe, not just Berlin.  It was a big deal.  At least one boar is given to the Harnack House, and after the hunt, there is a special dinner of roast boar.  Now, I was nowhere near high enough on the food chain to get into the hunt—not that I’d want to; I’m not a hunter—but the roster for the dinner is much broader, and I am an eater.  So I went.  (Tastes like pork, but stronger.)

The O-club also did other special events, of course  I remember that it did a Seder at Passover, and because Chuck is Jewish but his wife is Catholic, he wanted to introduce her to some of our practices—but in a protected and comfortable way.  So he asked me to go with them to the Harnack House Seder, so there’d be people she knew around her.  We also went to a service at a Berlin synagogue—though I don’t remember if it was the same Passover, some other holiday, or just a Friday Sabbath service.  It was the same deal—I’d go along so that there’d be at least two of us around whom Ro could feel comfortable.  Unfortunately, what Chuck hadn’t realized was that the synagogue he selected was a conservative congregation and Ro had to sit separate from us with the other women.  So much for protection in numbers. 

There were also some less orthodox—if you’ll pardon the alternative use of the term here—amusements in which we indulged occasionally.  (I did some amateur theater in Berlin, as you’ll see momentarily—but I’m thinking of slightly different diversions here.)  I’ve mentioned that living in Berlin got claustrophobic at times, and though the Army and the other occupational forces offered outlets, as did the city itself, we could go stir-crazy sometimes if we hadn’t been out of the city for a while—especially if we’d been working overmuch for a while, like when I was on 24-hour call for an extended time.  I was still pretty young then and still prone to adolescent excesses.  Physics suggests that if you put too much pressure on one place, something’s likely to pop out somewhere else, and I guess that’s what happened to a bunch of us. 

At one time while I was in Berlin we got a visit from the U.S. Army Synchronized Swim Team.  That’s what used to be called water ballet—and the team was all WAC’s.  I don’t recall if I actually went to the “performance” (I’m not sure what you call it) or not—probably not, since I don’t remember it.  But one of my friends, who was especially adept at that kind of thing, had hooked up with the team afterwards.  A group of us—mostly junior officers, but a few NCO’s were included—gathered to party.  (Yup, we were fraternizing.  Just one of the no-no’s on out list by the end of the evening.)  Nothing lewd, just a moveable drinking and eating event.  Think frat party on wheels.  Somewhere along the line—I’m sure we’d consumed a fair amount by that time in the evening—someone from our gang, a Special Services officer who was in charge of Berlin Brigade’s recreation facilities, announced that he still had the keys for the pool.  “Whoooaaa!  Let’s go swimming with the WAC’s,” we all decided at once.  And why not?  It’s not like it was against any rules or anything.  Not much! 

Well, we organized car pools on the spot—I don’t remember where we were at that moment; probably someone’s BOQ—and off we went to the pool on one of the compounds.  “Hey!  Let’s go skinny-dipping!” someone suggested.  So we did.  (There were some wives along, too, by the way.  But what the hey.)  So there we were, maybe a dozen or so junior officers and NCO’s, a couple of wives, and the WAC swim team skinny-dipping and partying at the empty recreation services swimming pool after hours.  I don’t recall that anyone brought booze to the pool, but we’d had enough before to last well into the night.  I won’t describe what went on, but I’m sure you can give it a good guess.  We stayed there until after dawn started to show and the buzz began to wear off.  I was one of the first to leave—I’d begun to prune up, not to mention sober up—and I took one or two partiers with me (I was one of the drivers—not to say “designated drivers”); I don’t know how long anyone else stayed at the pool.  Astonishingly, as far as I know, no one ever learned of our midnight escapade.  Considering how many of us there were and how much we’d all had to drink during the evening, that’s amazing.  It’s possible, I suppose, that the word got out but no one decided to do anything about it—but I doubt that would have been the case, considering the number of regs we broke.

In any case, I was in Germany (again), and I was going to partake of German culture.  Not just the food, either.  I mentioned in passing that I had attended the Bundeswehr intel school.  I had been sent as a guest-officer to the MAD-Schule.  (MAD was the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the military counterintelligence service of the Bundeswehr.  Unlike MI, which is solely Army intel, MAD was an all-service organization.  It is now called the Amt für Sicherheit der Bundeswehr, the Office for the Security of the Bundeswehr.)  That was something of a fluke, as it turns out.  I don’t know how often the Bundeswehr—the combined military of the FROG—invited foreign officers to any of their schools, especially the MAD-Schule, or if they ever invited any but Americans, but they had invited two to join the class in the summer and fall of ’72. 

The requirements for the program were that the guest had to be an officer (there were also NCO classes, but I don’t know if guest NCO’s were ever invited, too), have at least a year left on his tour, and speak German.  And, of course, be available during the dates of the two-part course.  That apparently narrowed the available pool at 66th MI enough so that Munich reached out to Berlin for one officer.  Since the point for us was to get to know some German MI officers and perhaps to establish personal relationships with some who might later be in positions of real authority, it was something of a wasted invitation because there was no Bundeswehr in Berlin—it wasn’t permitted by the Occupation.  The point for them was pretty much the same thing, so it wasn’t much use for an officer stationed in Berlin to make the trip and take the slot.  But better use it than lose it, so there I was, with a good two years left to go in Germany (or so we all thought at the time) and speaking German well enough to do the course.  Off I drove to Bad Ems.  (Coincidently, Bad Ems was across the Rhine from Koblenz, the town I had lived in ten years before as a teenager so I got a little nostalgic trip “home” thrown in.  I planned my arrival so I could spend the night in Koblenz—at a pension right by the Deutsches Eck, down the Rheinanlagen from where we used to live—and I could check out the town and then report to the MAD-Schule in Bad Ems fresh and in uniform the next morning.) 

I didn’t actually go off to Bad Ems right away.  The Bundeswehr isn’t any more efficient sometimes than the U.S. Army—despite Germany’s rep for efficiency.  (Germans knew exactly when a piece of mail was supposed to be delivered after it was sent.  If it was even one day late, they’d call the post office and complain.  Made it hard for us to intercept mail.)  I was supposed to go just as rehearsals had gotten underway for the American Community Theater production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth.  I had been cast in one of the supporting roles—for the life of me, I don’t remember who—and I had to tell the director that I’d been ordered away on TDY and would have to drop out.  This being a military base, they were used to that, but no one was thrilled with having to recast the role—and I had wanted to start working with the group and this would have been my first chance.  A week or so later, though, word came in that the class had been rescheduled and I wouldn’t be leaving until after the production.  I went back to the director and offered her my services as a volunteer, just so I could get into the group.  To my surprise, she asked me to resume my role.  I don’t remember if they just hadn’t recast it yet or were unhappy with the choice, or what. 

It didn’t really matter, because a few days later, the director kept me after a rehearsal and told me that they were very displeased with the actor playing Chance Wayne, the male lead, and would I take over the role.  (The only thing I remember specifically about this guy is that in the hash-smoking scene in the beginning—we used chunks of stale brownie—he didn’t have any idea what it was like to smoke hash or get high or anything.  The director and the rest of us sort of tried to “teach” him what it was like—great, big pot-head that I was, don’cha know—but he never really got it.)  Believe me, I was flattered—besides being a lead, Chance is, as one of my teachers later would describe it, a sex-pot role.  (Paul Newman played the part in the Broadway première.  That wasn’t my usual casting, even before I got gray, grizzled, and fat.)  However, I wasn’t real comfortable about the idea of displacing an actor already in rehearsal, so I said I’d do it on one condition: that I not be around when they told the guy playing the part then.  Coward, right?  Dot’s I’m!  (Turns out he was relieved—he was way over his head and knew it.  He was pleased to take a smaller part, probably mine, but I don’t remember that detail.)  So, anyway, we went back into rehearsals and got ready to do our show.

There were a few incidents connected to the show that are amusing.  (In hindsight!)  First and foremost, I had a Princess Kosmonopolis who liked to shorten her lines—more and more each time.  It wasn’t that she didn’t remember them—she was fine in rehearsal—she just seemed not to like to say them.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of exposition in our scenes in the first act, and she was dropping lots of information about the backstory.  So I kept picking up her lines and adding them to mine.  Why I never said anything to the director—or why she never noticed it or, if she did, said anything to the actress, I’ll never know.  Little by little, then, I was developing a monologue! 

Then there was the night that I had heard from backstage scuttlebutt that the assistant director, an Entertainment Specialist in the Special Services office (which ran ACT), had told a few people that he was going to walk on in the bar scene as an unannounced extra.  Well, I was furious, and went off looking for him.  He got the word that I was, and he actually hid from me.  I think he actually thought I might kill him.  (He was one of those who was in awe of my MI status—and I never disillusioned him.)    I found him hiding upstairs from the auditorium, in the Entertainment Section offices, and I gave him a severe tongue-lashing.  I let him think I might kill him if he set foot on the stage.  Dat’s right.  I’m baad.  Uh-huh, uh-huh. (With gratitude and apologies to the late, great Gene Wilder.)

There had been an earlier incident where I wore my MI hat.  Well, cloak I guess.  Someone in the Special Services office—the Entertainment Director, I think—came to me because that same guy had been telling people he was a spook.  He’d even taken to wearsing a fedora!  I never made it official, but I gave him one of my “stern talking-to’s”—like those SAEDA briefings I mentioned earlier.  I put him on notice—like a traffic cop who says, “I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but don’t let me catch you speeding again!”  He being a PFC or whatever, was ummmm . . . shall we say, chastened?  He thought I was King Shit after that.  I just let him.  (Now you also see what I meant when I said I’d been acting a role all the time I was in the Army.)

Finally, one night—I believe it was the night my parents were visiting and came to the show (my mom wasn’t too thrilled with the castration stuff at the end of the play, I can tell you!)—the crew person who was supposed to close the curtain at the end of the first act didn’t show up and no one noticed.  That act ends with Chance and Princess going back to bed, ostensibly to make love—but the curtain’s supposed to close as we’re getting back in the bed.  Well, we’re moving toward the bed—no curtain.  We’re getting in bed—no curtain.  We’re in bed—NO CURTAIN.  The lights are off—NO CURTAIN!  “What shall we do?” one of us whispers.  “I don’t know,” the other replies.  No one noticed the curtain was still up—or they didn’t know what to do about it.  “Well, should we just get up?”  “Yeah, I guess.  What else can we do?”  So, finally, that’s exactly what we did.  In the semi-darkness, we simply climbed back out of bed and tip-toed off the stage.  At which point I did my Hulk routine again, and went apoplectic about who let the curtain go unattended, why didn’t anyone remedy the situation when it developed, and I better not find that crew person alive anytime soon.  (As I’ve admitted, I was good at bluster.)

Well, that was the start of my theatrical career in Berlin.  The ACT, which later became the Berlin Entertainment Center, went on to do John Murray and Allen Boretz’s Room Service and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company! and some others I wasn’t in, like The Caine Mutiny Court Martial by Herman Wouk.  I remember the guy who played the doctor in Room Service one night when he was supposed to be in the bathroom (off stage) came wandering back on stage because he had gotten a splinter in a finger.  Amateurs!  (A bunch of us later decided we wanted more continuity than a show-to-show association, so we started an independent theater group and got the NCO club at Tempelhof to sponsor us.  That’s how I got to meet Colonel Halvorsen.) 

But I did go off to the MAD-Schule eventually.

MAD Spezial Lehrgruppe “Abwehroperation” für Offiziere (MAD Special Class “Counterintelligence Operations” for Officers) was a two-part course over the summer and fall of 1972, and I was one of two U.S. officers in the class—the other being a captain from Munich, Doug Waters.  The rest of the class were German army, navy, and Luftwaffe officers, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels and the naval equivalents, and that was an experience.  I don’t mean the classes—they were interesting, of course, but purely from a professional perspective, nothing amusing.  Going to class in German, especially an esoteric class like intel, was a trip, but it was a terrific exercise for me.  The German officers—who were all older than both Captain Waters and me—were rather astonished to find that we could get on so well in German.  (When I was a kid in Koblenz a decade before, I learned that Germans love the idea of foreigners learning their language.)  And that’s where the revelations started. 

I’m assuming that this bunch was pretty much typical—I don’t see why they wouldn’t be.  The school was a self-contained facility in the little hot-water spa of Bad Ems on the banks of the Lahn (Bad means ‘bath’ in German; all towns with that in their names are or were thermal spas)—there was no military base to which it was attached like the Armor School at Ft. Knox or the Intel School at either Holabird or Huachuca.  (Even the language school in Monterey was at the Presidio, a satellite of the huge Ft. Ord on the other side of town.)  So we had a little mess—good food, by the way—and an O-club.  Well, a bar.  After classes, we’d all gather there for drinks and conversation—everyone was very gemütlich (an untranslatable word which here is best rendered as ‘convivial’)—and then we’d return after dinner.  Man, could those German officers drink!  My American colleague gave up trying to keep up with them pretty quickly—they kept buying rounds, and you can’t really say no.  So I’m drinking mine . . . and his to keep the Germans from feeling slighted.  And not only are they buying round after round, but they keep changing liquor.  (They even drank some bourbon, in deference to us Americans.  I’m surprised they had any in stock.)  They also bought a round of Ratzeputz, a German liqueur I had experienced in my earlier days in the country.  The name means something like “cleans out your stomach” and it’ll eat the enamel off your teeth.  It’s pretty vile. 

Okay, so we’re all getting pretty plastered—nothing rude, but loose.  We’re comparing backgrounds and home lives and so on, and then the Germans start to sing.  Now, these guys weren’t all in the same service as I said, or from the same part of the country, but they all knew the same songs.  And they knew them all the way through.  They asked us to sing some American songs, and do you know that between the two of us, we didn’t know one song together all the way?  Germany is a singing society—or it was until that generation, at least.  Germans would sing when they got together.  (Russians are like that, too.)  We just don’t. 

There were no classes on weekends and the school pretty much closed down.  Everyone went back home then; even Doug Waters went back to Munich.  But I couldn’t go back to Berlin.  Even if the drive weren’t prohibitively long (370 miles—about six hours without the checkpoints), the paperwork would have been impossible to negotiate.  So I stayed in Bad Ems and took trips.  Like I said, you can’t do that in Berlin—so I took advantage of the situation, and sightsaw.  One weekend, I drove up to Aachen—Charlemagne’s capital (known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle).  Another weekend, I did day trips in the area.  Remember, I had lived near there 10 years earlier, so there were places I knew about but hadn’t gotten to back in those days.  I also poked around Koblenz to see if I could find any of the old places I remembered, but the town had changed so much physically that I wasn’t able to find a lot of them.  It was a very strange experience—going back after a decade—especially that decade.  From the ’60s to the ’70s, Europe changed a lot, and Koblenz reflected every aspect of that change.  I hardly recognized the town—a real city by 1972. 

When I first arrived in Koblenz on that June day in 1972 and I was driving around looking for a place to stay, I inadvertently got myself onto an elaborate cloverleaf I never remembered from the 1960s which forced me onto the Pfaffendorf Bridge across the Rhine to Ehrenbreitstein.  I looked for the former Amerika Haus on Schlossstrasse, my father’s office back then—but couldn't find it.  I located our house because I remembered the address, but the house, which was some kind of office—a lawyer, I think—didn't look the same.  The whole experience was disheartening.  Over one of the weekends, I ate in two of the old restaurants we used to enjoy.  One was the Königsbacher brewery where we used to love to go for basic, plain German food.  The restaurant was really the mess hall for the brewery workers, but it was open to the public.  We had great meals served at long wooden tables with benches, no adornments, and I was stunned to find that the old dining hall had been replaced by a fancy terrace restaurant overlooking the Mosel where the closest thing to German food on the menu was Wiener Schnitzel, which is Austrian.  What a drag.  (Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again.) 

The other restaurant, near the railroad station, was Die Ewige Lampe (The Eternal Lamp).  It almost looked as if it hadn’t changed.  While I was waiting for my meal, the waiter got into a dispute with an American couple nearby.  They had asked for water and the waiter had brought them a bottle of mineral water.  They demanded tap water and wouldn’t accept the waiter’s explanation that they would be unhappy and that the restaurant wouldn’t serve them tap water.  I felt compelled to step in and explained, “I used to live in this town and believe me, you don’t want to drink the tap water here.  It’s hard as rock, full of iron, and tastes vile.  It’s undrinkable.  You can’t even make tea with it.”  Whether they believed me or not, they did give up the fight and the waiter brought me a brandy after dinner.  (That’s true about the water in Koblenz.  It won’t make you sick or anything, but it’s unpalatable—and eventually turns everything, like my mother’s dishes, rust-brown.)

The MAD course was a two-parter, and we went during June and July for the first stage.  We were there over 4 July, so Doug Waters and I decided that we had to throw a Fourth of July barbecue for our German classmates.  Even by 1972, barbecuing the American way—over a grill outdoors then eating outside pretty much with your hands—was still un-German.  (My mom had done a cook-out for some ladies of Koblenz, and they didn’t quite know how to manage it.  They ate hamburgers with knives and forks and then wanted to wash the paper plates.)  Well, since Doug, who was married after all, went back to Munich for the weekends, I was tasked with doing the shopping.  I drove up to the commissaries in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden—where my family used to do their big periodic shopping trips from Koblenz—and stocked up on steaks, hot dogs, and burgers.  I got number-10 cans of baked beans and all the fixin’s for a traditional Independence Day barbecue.  We had a half day on Tuesday, the Fourth—a coincidence, as far as I know—and the morning was devoted to Sport.  We had done this before, and gone to a swimming pool for the day, but this time we were going kegeling—German bowling.  Wouldn’t you know it, most Kegelbahns were also bars! 

That morning was rainy and gray, and it looked like the barbecue was going to be a wash-out.  But we came out of the Kegelbahn and the sun was shining.  One of the German officers cracked, “Is it Jesus or the good Lord himself who loves America?”  And off we went to our cook-out.  The mess hall had come up with a grill, and we set up everything outside—the Germans sprang for the beer—and the cook-out was a blazing success.  (All that beer didn’t hurt.)  What went over best, I was surprised to find, was the baked beans.  Man, those guys just loved that stuff.  I had over-bought a little, and they served the rest at mess until it ran out.  I think they even prevailed on me to get more from the commissary.  I think I created a bunch of addicts!  But we paid those guys back for all their jovial kindness and cordiality—even if we never could keep up with their singing—and stood America in good repute with a small group of folks. 

They really were a gemütlich bunch, and they had a good deal of fun among themselves, too.  We took a field trip one day up to Bonn—back home again (again)!—so the Germans could take advantage of being so near the capital to stop in at the Bundeswehr HQ/Defense Ministry and do a little career schmoozing.  As we were driving through the city in the bus, one of the officers shouted out, “There’s the Bavarian Embassy!” and everyone laughed uproariously.  One of our number was Bavarian, and they all explained that the office we passed was the Bavarian tourist office—but that Bavaria was so much like a different country, that they teased the guy about needing an embassy in Bonn like a foreign state.  (Bavaria’s sort of the Texas of Germany.  It’s also Catholic while the rest of the country is Protestant.) 

The senior officer of the class, Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Siegfried Rühfel, was from the Allgäu, another region in southern Germany.  Allgäuers, like Swabians, speak a dialect of German that is so different from Hoch Deutsch as to be unintelligible.  All through the course, the other officers used to tease this guy—who outranked us all, mind you—about needing a translator.  The Americans spoke better German than he did, they’d say.  (The officer didn’t actually speak his native dialect among us; the worst he had was an accent not much different from, say, a Southern or Southwestern accent in American English)  None of this was biting or nasty—it was all good-natured, and returned by the recipients in the same vein.  As I look back on this, it’s a little astounding, because it was all in German—not just the classes (my notes were in German, too—it didn’t make sense to try to translate on the spot; it would take to much concentration away from listening), but all this drinking and schmoozing.  Some of the Germans must have spoken some English—most Europeans spoke some other language than their own, and many spoke several; English was already the most important international language, so I’m sure there were several who spoke it at least a little.  But I don’t recall ever getting into a full conversation in English

When I got back to Berlin, of course, I had to make a written Intelligence Report on everything I picked up.  (I’m sure the IR’s lying in some DOD archive, too, along with my exfiltration staff study.)  It was mostly about the personalities—the instruction wasn’t news.  We had taken snapshots all the time—well, not me, but the German officers—and I turned in a set with ID’s of all the Germans.  (I still have a set—taken at the Independence Day party—with the officers’ names all written on the backs.)   The funny thing is, in some Bundeswehr archive somewhere, there’s a file on an American junior intel officer with red hair and a mustache who could speak German, but didn’t know all the words to any songs.  (And who drove a big, red American car!)  A lot o’ good it did ’em.  I was gone in two years.  (And whose fault was that?)

[I hope ROTters are enjoying this visit to a portion of my past.  I guess it’s obvious that my 2½ years in West Berlin—back when there was such a place as West Berlin—was a significant experience for me.  Even the most ordinary-seeming events seemed intense to me then, partly, I imagine, because it was Cold War Berlin and partly because I was very young and really being a grown-up for the first time. 

[I invite you all to come back for Part 7, to be published in a couple of weeks or so, which will cover a couple of trips I took out of Berlin and some SNAFU’s in which I was involved as a result of my duties back in the divided city.]