November Rain

Last week a local community actor invited me to a dress rehearsal of their show, David Mamet’s November at The Acting Ensemble. I attended, wanting to see the actors involved in a production, but also wanting to see some Mamet come off the page. I typically don’t research shows coming in, because I want to be able to enjoy the show as it’s presented with from lights up to lights down.

I share the news about this show for two reasons, the first, to promote local theatre, and the performances of the actors involved, Michael Coffee, Dave Kempher, Ginny Cipolla, Doug Streich, and Michael Clarkson. I enjoyed all of the their performances and thought they wholeheartedly committed to a fun project they wanted to present. The second is much more personal and will be the primary focus of this opinion piece (but then again, this is a personal blog, so all pieces are opinion pieces by nature).

Ben Brantley, of the NY Times, shared in his 2008 review of the Broadway premiere production, “… ‘November’ is a David Mamet play for people who don’t like David Mamet.”

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Michael Coffee and Ginny Cipolla in ‘November’ Photos by William Heimann

I like Mamet. At the same time I don’t. But whichever way I’m feeling, I have a respect for what he does. To reiterate my initial statement, I commend the actors and their performances in this production of Mamet’s November. They all came out strong, and in the confines of the intimate playing space at Studio 217 (where The Acting Ensemble resides), the contrast among actors and the variety of characters was quite entertaining.

But I didn’t like the play in regards to current social discussion, i.e., I think November was a poor choice for this year despite the fact that it is an election year.

Let me back up for a second.

November opened for previews on Broadway in December of 2007, and officially opened in January of 2008. If further clarification would help, The 2008 election marked the end of Dubya’s second term and ushered in the United States’ first black President. Gay marriage wasn’t legal. The two major parties bill Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin. It was a different time.

In case you’ve managed to refrain from any political news, we’re coming up on the election of 2016, where the Dems gave HRC the nod and the GOP presented Drumpf. It has been over a year since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalization of gay marriage. #BlackLivesMatter is a major movement and when you talk about “The Wall” there’s a greater probability you’re talking about immigration and not Pink Floyd.

It was a different time.

The Acting Ensemble is a community theatre in South Bend, Indiana.

Recently, a tasteless marketing campaign for a restaurant who’s quality matches it’s level of tact sparked a discussion that spread beyond Facebook comment threads.

I am a first-generation American citizen. Both of my parents are Asian immigrants.

I have a problem with the fact that many still don’t realize why there’s a difference between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. It angers me that “a simple billboard” should be taken as humor, and that POC need to “lighten up” and “stop being so sensitive.”

As a strong supporter of theatre, I believe and acknowledge the fact that there are works of art that are meant to invoke discussions and spark the mind and soul. Art can tell stories, send messages, and entertain. The theatre is a place where I feel safe, yet challenged. Welcomed and still constructively cultivated. For me, when reading plays, especially when thinking about producing them, I ask myself a few questions.
1. What is the story being told?
2. Why this play?
3. Why now?
When it comes to Mamet’s November, it looks like a shoe in for a 2016 billet. The play focuses on fictional President Charles Smith as he approaches the end of his term and the next election. Meanwhile, for us in present time…It’s an election year, and it’s brash and crude enough to shake some people up. Check.

When you look at the play itself, and you consider the election season that we’re in, I told myself that people who thought there was no problem with the Haci billboard will probably enjoy this show.

I can’t remember the last time I heard racial slur “Chink” used (other than the video of Megan Lochte)…having seen this play, now I do. Additionally, there is also discussion of building a wall to aid immigration reform. And then there’s the whole subplot of the president’s speech writer, who is also a lesbian and just wants to marry the woman that she loves so they can raise their adopted Chinese baby as a married couple.

And then there’s the Indian Chief who leaves the reservation to visit the Oval Office AND THE ACTOR THAT’S PLAYING HIM IS A BRITISH MALE. YES. BRITISH AS IN ACTUALLY FROM ENGLAND.

I understand that this script and story is gross, heavy-handed satire, but seriously? The ONLY thing that kept me from walking out of this performance was the fact that I actually liked watching the artists involved.

Diversity in theatre is not as easy as “build it and they will come.” There was a production of Miss Saigon in 2015 and there were several white females who dyed their hair black for the show. And the lead (who was actually Asian) had to be hired in from about 100 miles away. Are there no minorities in the Michiana region? Or is it just that some people here just don’t know any and are too confused about how to meet new people?

Recently, there was a second round of auditions for a production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which is a play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the night before his assassination. In the Broadway production, this two-character play featured Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. At Kent State University, there were performances of their production of The Mountaintop where a white male played the role of MLK. YES. WHITE.

Earlier this year I directed a production of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, which is written as having three Puerto Ricans, one Middle Eastern male, one Japanese female, one black male, and one white male. All of the actors I had cast in the roles were white. This was a conscious choice on my part (including discussions with the Artistic Director and staff), and part of the reason I let myself be ok with it is because the story that I could still tell (in regards to family dynamics, interpersonal connections, and a veteran’s perspective) were still somewhat intact. These characters are not iconic historical characters like Dr. King, Golda Meir, Anne Frank, or Rosa Parks where race and/or cultural/religious background played an integral part in their journey.

Next season, there’s a production of In the Heights on the docket at South Bend Civic Theatre. Yes, THAT In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes. And outreach efforts have mildly begun, but are nowhere near where they should be. But with auditions still a few months away, there’s still time.

What I’m trying to say is that theatre can AND SHOULD be both a style of communication and an art form that respects humans, enriches lives, entertains families, and brings a community together. Those producing should be cognizant of the current state of their community and take into account multiple perspectives, but I guess to do that, you’d have to meet more people and branch out a little farther that the track of a comfort zone you’ve pounded into the pavement.

It’s late. I’m tired, and I don’t want to end on a sour note, so I’ll go back to the inciting event.

The Acting Ensemble presents David Mamet’s November, and they have a few more performances left this weekend. Below are a few more photos by William Heimann.

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Michael Coffee and Dave Kempher. Photo by William Heimann

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Ginny Cipolla, Michael Coffee, and Dave Kempher. Photo by William Heimann

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The cast of David Mamet’s ‘November’: Ginny Cipolla, Dave Kempher, Michael Coffee, Doug Streich, Michael Clarkson. Photo by William Heimann
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