Friday, April 23, 2010

An Update

This is a brief posting just to update you on Hamzeh. Several people have emailed asking about him since the car accident, and I am happy to report that Hamzeh returned to school at the end of last week, and so has had one full week now back in school. His bones are healing, his spirits are high, and he is happy to be back at KA. Tomorrow, Saturday, is his birthday and we will celebrate his 17th birthday during the Proctor Leadership Training this weekend where he and 60-some juniors and sophomore are training to take us into the next year. As you might imagine, I missed him, and am grateful to have him back at school.

Tomorrow we will explore the word recidivism...look it up if you need to...

By the way, recidivism has nothing to do with Hamzeh!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Like Buttah…

I know I am going metaphor crazy when I talk about Twelve Angry Jurors—last week it was butter and diamonds, and during the whole rehearsal process I kept stressing to the cast that this play was like a volleyball game (“whatever you do—keep the volleys going!") but what I really want to emphasize is how this play is like a marvelous chamber orchestra. Hey, I’m like a carnival barker—step right up and pick the metaphor you like best!

So another play is yet another scrapbook page in the cosmic drama scrapbook. I sat with my student helpers, Anna Rose, and Swara in one of the 90 seats we put around the playing area in this great multi-purpose room in the Fine Arts wing. I had nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the exquisite work of my actors and my production team. Anna Rose was the House Manager and Stage Manager (she is that good to be able to work back stage and front of house!) and I asked Swara to give the pre-performance speech to the audience. Gasp! Yes, I gave up speaking to the audience, and let Swara set the tone for how the audience might engage with the play.

The play opens with the warning by the judge as to how the jurors should approach this important deliberation. Our venerable headmaster played the Judge for this one-paragraph part, and then the jurors enter the room. I love the opening of this play because just from watching them enter the room you get some clues about their characters. Instead of plunging into dialogue, there is this great awkward silence as we watch these 12 strangers come into this caged-room and dart their eyes around. For 90 minutes the actors are just a few feet away, and this group of actors acquitted themselves magnificently (acquitted—get the kind of pun??).

This is the fifth time I have directed this play since 1994, but it so interesting how the performances are not carbon copies of each other among the five productions. While I have blocked the play remarkably similarly (it’s not like the set can change much!) each of the five actors, naturally, has brought his or her own intelligence and fire to each of these jurors. But tonight’s blog entry belongs to my excellent cast of 2010. Let me tell you some of their great moments in the play:

Mohammad: The last time I cast the play, I envisioned the foreman more as a meek man. If you met this tall, strapping guy, Mohammad, you would never think of him as meek. I didn’t want this part to be a “paper tiger” and Mohammad was anything but. He stressed the duty that Americans have in performing their role as a juror, and Mohammad ended up offering us a great reminder of how this foreman seeks out responsibility. When he entered the jury room in the very beginning he had a look of authority and promise on his face—this character wanted the responsibility of being foreman, and the practice of learning how to lead. Mohammad had a great debut in theater!

Abdullah: This actor has had the most experience of anyone in drama at KA—I believe this was his 5th dramatic outing. This is a part that could devolve into a squeamish weasel, but as with everything Abdullah does, he invested it with complexity. Every time he squirmed in his chair, or went to get water at the water cooler, he embroidered his character with details of body language and facial expressions and vocal nuances. This juror could have been merely a shy or weak person, but he created a much more interesting wilted flower.

Lawrence: This is maybe the showiest part of them all in the play, and perhaps the most challenging asking a teen-ager to effectively show the weariness of a lifetime of fatherhood, and failed fatherhood at that. The part always includes a teary breakdown in the end, and that takes courage as a teen-age actor. Lawrence was more than just loud; he
revealed to all of us the wounded heart of a father who misses his son. When I cast the play, Lawrence was the only senior, and frankly many seniors these days have been affected by that sea change known as senioritis—but Lawrence was a true leader in this play and committed himself to the play.

Adel: Juror #4 is another who couldn’t possibly be wrong, but not in the same way as others. He is successful, cool, calm, and collected, but narrow-minded. My boy Adel brought a real polish to this part that I imagine to be a bank executive. At the beginning of the week he still exhibited some typical traits of a novice, teen-age actor, but by the performances, his authority and commanding voice showed great improvement and strength as an actor.

Jamil: I can’t tell you what a joy it was to watch this guy in this play. In the dress rehearsals I made sure I had a good view to watch his engagement in the play. This juror has some of the fewest lines in the entire play, but Jamil did not waste a moment on stage. He invested his performance with edginess and a heartbreaking disappointment. He played this meek man who felt self-conscious, and we watched him erupt into a tirade of self-loathing and then transform himself into a man of action. Whether he was mopping his brow or rolling up his sleeves or piecing the argument together, he “acted” every second.

Dana: This great student was not my original casting choice…alas, I took a chance on a student for whom I hoped a commitment would stick, and it didn’t work out. So I had said to this estimable senior that I would put her on speed dial. When the experiment-actor quit the play, Dana was there within a half hour, picking up a part. I had always directed this part to a male actor, but Dana provided the fire that makes the part tick.

Rob: This is another of the students I have taught every day at KA (there were 2 in this play) and find him an absolute joy. This part is another one that could have been less interesting—I mean he is not as mean and nasty as Jurors 3 and 10, but Rob imbued with such a firm sarcastic identity. Towards the end of the play there is a look that sweeps over Rob’s face of his dampened fire—a look of discovery and disappointment that defied an easy assessment. The burning embers of a fire tamped down is a great sign of acting prowess.

When all the jurors walked in during that purposefully awkward opening silence, you might not pick out this juror as the “Henry Fonda” part. I did not pick a senior, or the tallest, or someone who looked a phony-wise demeanor. This guy is a sophomore and had a part that must command the stage. I chose Mounir because of his dedication to his piano work—I knew he understood the value of rehearsal and polish. Mounir chose to have his character build up to a charisma of a master teacher—he didn’t wield all those skills in the beginning of the play, and so you got to see the evolution of a fearless leader. Command the stage, he did indeed.

Hanna: The oldest character went to the youngest actor! Hanna was our lone 9th grader, and I was never really as interested in how she was “old” in the role, but how she was trying to be strong, to be courageous, to show that she mattered as an older person. As I watched the chamber orchestra at work, somehow Hanna was able to show a face strained with agonies of time—with no make-up at all, just a performance of frailty and then strength.

Hana: This juror gets one of the greatest monologues in the play—I call them “arias” because of their size and proportion. In the auditions I was riveted by Hana’s reading of this part—not as someone yelling, but as someone hushed and bitter. She joins a cavalcade of great actresses doing this part, but she performed it with different shadings, and no less lethal. Approaching Juror #10 is tricky—she is not just loud, not just annoying, and Hana dug down deep trying to discover what makes her tick. Her “aria” was a moment of thrilling theater, but as she sat back down, her eyes welled with tears, and we got to see a lifetime of fear and confusion washing over her face.

Burhan: This young man always has a smile on his face and radiates joy, and that is what he brought to this part of the “immigrant juror.” He is so proud to be an American now (in the play) and he offers a sense of wonder to others who just seem jaded and resentful of their time being wasted on a jury. He is another of these fine actors whom I watched build up to his lines—he didn’t just say his lines, he was invested in the conversation, enjoying the volleyball game.

Robert: This actor came up with a whole new “back story” for his character. I have always cast the advertising exec as a female actor, but Robert created a whole new interpretation of a kind of ne’er-do-well posing as an executive, since when you are around strangers, you certainly could offer up your life story as an alternate reality. I wonder how this jury proceeding changed him after their time together. Robert made me wonder that.

My buddy Suhayb played the guard, a pretty thankless part, but I asked Suhayb to take the part simply because I love it when he is around. And to be surrounded by the thoughtful, energetic Anna Rose and the passionate and reliable Swara, I was blessed.

At the end of the play, after the last explosion and break-down, the jurors all leave the stage in an awkward silence, but of course, not exactly like the opening silence. Each of them has endured a moment or two of a wounded heart, and you get to watch them grapple with what has happened to them. Juror #8, Mounir, gets the final moment as he leaves.

In my direction of the play, when I directed Mounir’s exit from the stage, I explained to him that I wanted him to offer the audience a “look” like the one at the end of the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a sit-com I loved in my long-ago childhood. The episode has long affected me, in large part, since the actors in real-life professed such a love of their colleagues. In the last scene the single character of Mary Richards says to her colleagues, “I have often wondered what the word family means. I think I know now. I think it is just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. Thank you for being my family.” Of course, I relate to her sentiments. I live far away from my real family, but these students here, they have been more than just little letters in some grade book to me. They have served as my family here.

This chamber orchestra did fine work. While the afterglow of the performance will fade, they take their places among those other fine actors I have enjoyed in this particular play.

I know I will do Twelve Angry Jurors again someday. I wonder where I will be then. I wonder where these actors will be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

And the rest of the week…

Teaching art history in the last 10 years has provided me with such wonderful moments to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life…from births and marriages, to graduations and triumphs, to death. Art history has just provided me over and over with mini-moments a la the Thornton Wilder play, Our Town.

I remember on September 12, 2001 how comforting it was to have something to teach and not just look dazed and stricken with students. What I had scheduled to teach the previous day were these votive figures from ancient Sumer. I recalled driving to school on that gorgeous late summer morning and wondering how these figures would go over in class. They are these bug-eyed sculptures in perpetual prayer and seemed so out-of-reach for my hip 21st century students in our hip 21st century world. Of course, after the developments that morning a few miles south of us at Hackley, our hip 21st century world changed and I never got to teach on that day.

However, on September 12th, while some other teachers did not plan anything to do that day but just rehash the news, I leapt at the chance to teach those figures. The previous day, for hours on end, we sat glued to the television and computer screens straining our eyes, minds, and imaginations to comprehend the events of that day, and I noticed that all around me, people stared bug-eyed at those screens, hands clasped in hands, and I realized we looked just like those worried votive figures. Votive figures are figures designed to keep the donor in perpetual prayer, beseeching answers and guidance and comfort from the gods. Wow—just what we all did in those hours (and days and weeks and…) after what came to be known as 9/11. In class on September 12th we studied these figures from almost five thousand years ago—and we had a connection. They lived in times that were often incomprehensible to them. They sought solace. They hoped the world would be a better place. How long would it all feel so unfair? All of us in the class that day had an instant understanding of what prompted craftsmen to make those figures and place them in temples. We sought similar answers. I have never forgotten how easily we understood those figures after we had our own crises with which to grapple.

After Ahmad’s death early this week we did not have classes on Tuesday but gathered for public grieving and mourning, both on campus, and with his family in Karak. On Wednesday we transitioned back, a little, to regular school life, with a day of half the classes meeting. The women went to Karak that day to mourn with the family. I picked up the syllabus from where we would have been the previous day had we not been stunned by the unexpected death.

Wouldn’t you know it—without changing anything in the syllabus—in those two days of classes this week, the glory of art and history provided some edifying moments and helpful ways for us to heal and reflect on life.

The topic for Tuesday was Impressionism. Oh, you may think you know it because of the ubiquity of Monet and Renoir on bags and umbrellas and pillow cases and posters and—what else? But over the years, as my study has deepened, I have loved how rich the context of this art is, certainly in terms of what these maverick artists rejected and what they embraced. But—and we all thrill to this—certainly, Impressionist art is ravishing. The luncheon parties and the sun-dappled trees, and the sturdy haystacks, and the laughing and the dancing…it is art about the transient moments of life, with mauve and blue colors streaking the shadows of our days. It is art about the celebration of the quotidian (cue the reference to Our Town) and how we must sigh at every fleeting second.

But you know, as I prepared for class on Wednesday, and worried that the art was too lighthearted for our nudge back to normalcy, I looked at the six artists whose lives and careers I hoped to discuss in class (Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, Cassatt, and Morisot) I realized something so interesting about their art and the 1870s when they exhibited independently of the all-powerful French salon. In that handful of years when they painted the now-iconic works, those six artists suffered and endured many tragedies. Two of them lost spouses, one lost a mistress, and three of them lost children. They painted during a time of suffering in Paris, the Paris Commune, and the occupation of the Germans, when occasionally, hundreds and even thousands of average Parisians were massacred in a day.

Yet there is no sign of any of this in the art. Maybe their joie de vivre was their shield, their bulwark, against ineffable sorrow. Maybe they simply insisted on hope.

But what wonderful art to study on Wednesday as we struggled to keep Ahmad and his family in our mind, and return to our studies as well.

On Thursday we studied Rodin and the monumental Burghers of Calais, the sculptural program that shocked the city of Calais when it was unveiled in 1889. The city fathers expected to see a heroic rendering of a 14th century scene depicting the Calais city councilmen at their most noble moment in the harrowing days of the Hundred Years’ War. Instead, Rodin gave them a group of unfinished-looking statues wandering around in a daze. Worse still—Rodin planted the sculpture on the ground—not even on a pedestal at least! Over time, those indignant French came to love this statue and admire the promise that ordinary people among us could make heroic decisions and act in a selfless manner. After 48 hours of testimonials to Ahmad, everyone in class knew that he or she had known someone who had acted in a similar manner. Art history as catharsis, maybe even therapy.

I ended the week attending a concert. That alone is cause to celebrate! While I might have my selection of 50 concerts a weekend in New York, here, the pickings are a bit more sparse. Shireen, a colleague at KA, conducts a choral group in Amman, and she is brilliant. Her group offered a concert with a Baroque emphasis in the first half, and in the second half, Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. I have sung the Faure three times before, the first being at Denison as a college freshman a million years ago. Most recently I sang the Faure just months after 9/11 in New York in a church on Fifth Avenue called the Church of Heavenly Rest.

Faure once remarked that his Requiem is dominated by “a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” Could there have been a more perfect way to end this week?? Shireen is not only a thoughtful and sensitive conductor (and teacher of music) but she provides the audience with helpful program notes, and she even creates an exciting ambience for the concert. Last Easter her concert was in a church that I had trouble telling what was happening to it—it looked in part exactly like the ruins of churches from the 4th-5th century, or it was a brand-new church not yet finished that had its roots in the design of the early Christian basilicas. But her concert of eclectic Christian music was performed in a church building where some of the walls did not exist, and she had diaphanous fabric hung in the openings. The music echoed out of the building out in the world creating a stirring effect.

For this concert Shireen performed in a museum “almost-finished.” Again, the motif of “under construction” adds an intriguing element to the concert program. The museum will be The Jordan Museum, dedicated to the story of Jordan, its arts, its politics. This concert of western music performed in a stunning new Middle Eastern building highlights how the interchanges of West and East happen with such ease and excitement in Jordan.

Anyway, I am sitting in the audience, enjoying the lush richness of Faure’s music. It begins with a rather turgid, Teutonic section about death, but it is as if we then cast off “the mortal coil” and are transported to paradise. The music reflects this transformation and this hope of peace in Paradise. Shireen conducts in a purely non-showy manner, highlighting her orchestra and her choir, and allowing her baritone and angelic soprano to captivate.

Shireen provided in the program notes a comment from Faure about his Requiem: “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience….” As I sat there, basking in the beauties of Pie Jesu and In Paradisum it helped put a punctuation mark on the week.

Thursday one of our librarians asked me how I coped—she said, “How can I go on and not forget him?” Of course, that is the challenge with every death of a loved one. How do we move forward, pick up the structures and activities of life, and cherish the memory of someone? As Shakespeare observed, “Ay, that is the rub.”

So yesterday was I guess a day in celebration of the quotidian—a day of grading, of planning, of resuming play practice, and ruminating on the power of music and art as catharsis, maybe even therapy.

I postponed our production to this upcoming week, this Tuesday and Thursday. I will soon tell you how they are doing with the butter and diamonds.

I spoke with Hamzeh by phone several times this week as he recuperates at home in Karak. He may be back at the end of this school week. What a joyous reunion that will be.

We'll catch up soon...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Plaintive Cry In The Night

“It’s a gift, you know,” Julianne noted, as she heard the call to prayer in the not-so-far distance Sunday evening. The call to prayer is so ingrained in this culture here, so reliable in its five-times-daily exhortation to pray that it certainly reminds one of the Middle Ages when the regular tolling of church bells helped everyone in that society tell time. This call to prayer came at about 8:40 p.m. after dusk had given way to the darkness of evening.

Julianne made that observation about the beauty of the regularity of the call to prayer at an otherwise profoundly sad moment here at KA. The community had gathered a few minutes before to hear the announcement that one of our seniors, Ahmad Tarawneh, had passed away just an hour or so before from injuries sustained in a car accident that afternoon. We gathered in a courtyard that has so often been the scene of joyous events, but now we had gathered to hear the words most feared in a school—the loss of one of our own.

As our headmaster and Julianne relayed the news, that call to prayer pierced the night sky. Julianne explained how she has come to view this call to prayer in her nine months in Jordan—it was a time to beseech, to seek solace, to reflect, to offer thanks, to rejoice, and to seek guidance. As an outsider, she observed how the regularity of that prayer cycle helped her process all the changes of moving thousands away, and now in a time of fresh grief, an opportunity to seek divine wisdom and healing.

That afternoon a tire blew out as the boys from the town of Karak were driven back to campus to resume KA life after a brief Easter break. I had gotten a call from Julianne about 6:30 that there had been an accident, and one young man was in critical condition, and another, Hamzeh, had been injured less critically. She knew how much Hamzeh has meant to me in my time here at KA, and she wanted to prepare me. She calmly explained how critical it remained for the other young man. Within an hour she had called to inform me that Ahmad had indeed not survived his injuries. We needed to gather the community as quickly as possible and reveal the turn-of-events to our students.

I never taught Ahmad, but he was one of those 100 students when KA opened its doors in 2007, and of course, back in those “salad days” it was easy to know everyone. It was also impossible to miss Ahmad. He was everywhere, trying everything, thoroughly enraptured with what this school had to offer, and the doors this school, and its training, and ethos, might open.

You could say Ahmad was a student of the school before it was a school. Ahmad was one of a group recruited from government schools in 2006 to attend a summer institute in the hopes that this group might improve their English skills enough that they might apply and attend this brand-spankin’-new school. By the time the school opened in the fall of 2007, he was already an old hand at the school, having attended two summer enrichment programs here.

Ahmad, in so many ways, was the prototype, even the archetype of the kind of student, and what this school hoped to achieve. Ahmad came from modest means, and his government school probably could not equip him with the skills or the access to world-class educational opportunities. But what His Majesty had in mind was a school that would train leaders, regardless of background, and prepare the next generation to lead Jordan, taking Jordan farther than anyone might imagine. Ahmad was a superb example of a young person ready for this challenge. He was humble, friendly, aware, intelligent, and unerring in his understanding of what school was all about. He loved the school uniform, loved computers, loved Jordan, admired his teachers, and looked for any new way to enhance and enrich himself. While Ahmad was by definition “introverted,” he was not a wallflower. He simply did and acted and performed and led by a straight-line moral example, and people knew of his talents and compassion.

I remember in the first few days of the school watching small groups perform skits based on the Five Guiding Principles of our infant school. I remember him participating in a skit, gently mocking the idealism and heroic qualities of those guiding principles. He was charming, funny, but never precocious or sarcastic. As I would get to know him over these three years, he lived by those guiding principles, not out of fear of reprisal, but he believed that those principles, and order would train him for great things.

Last year Ahmad applied to go on the Model Congress trip I planned to lead to Boston. 54 students “auditioned,” to be delegates and most were excellent. All five of the judges noted Ahmad’s outstanding preparation, public speaking, poise, and intelligence, and he earned a spot on the trip. Ahmad loved the trip to Boston and was a model student on the trip.

Last spring Ahmad won a place for a summer program at Oxford. I remember an email I received from him during that time telling me of his economics class and how exciting it was to spend the summer at Oxford. “Imagine ME at Oxford!” he wrote, and his joy was apparent as he recounted what they were doing.

While at KA Ahmad tried squash, tried the violin, sang in a choir, traveled with His Majesty on a trip to the US where the king spoke in Washington, Princeton, and New York. Ahmad earned a proctorship for freshmen, and then, this year for his own peers, and of course, spent last fall in a sea of college applications. Just a few days ago he was accepted at Brown University.

In Islamic tradition a body is buried within 24 hours of death, so arrangements needed to be made immediately. Yesterday all the males on campus who wanted to attend the funeral, we took seats on buses for the 100 mile trip to Karak for an event we would have thought unthinkable only 18 hours before. As I learned yesterday, there are many traditions and customs to funerals in Jordan, and the funeral and burial is attended by the male mourners just after one of the calls to prayer. We arrived in Karak at noon and the Muslims poured into this beautiful mosque to do the daily prayers and then the prayers for Ahmad. We non-Muslims remained outside in the courtyard as is the tradition. Then we followed the coffin raised by loved ones to the cemetery for a graveside service, and then met with male family members, hoping that our large numbers provided a small comfort for this stricken family.

As we rode back on the bus from Karak I thought of the last long conversation Ahmad and I enjoyed, just a couple of weeks ago. We sat on a bus going somewhere for the Model United Nations conference and we got to talking about the “ideal” school, and Ahmad’s awareness of school and learning and pedagogy and student behaviors impressed me. As always, it was an exquisite conversation with an intelligent and able teen-ager on the cusp.

As I thought about that excited email from last summer of his presence at Oxford, I was reminded of a beautiful play by Emlyn Williams from the 1940s, called The Corn is Green. This play focused on a modest mining village in Wales, and its autobiographical content was about a teacher who discovered a latent genius for writing and thinking in a young student. Eventually that student landed at Oxford. The parallels are obvious—Ahmad hailed from a modest, albeit proud town, where few young people end up at Oxford. In the play the teacher reads from an essay by the student named Morgan in the play, and how his words startled and uplifted her. She read his words: “And when I walk in the dark, I can touch with my hand to where the corn is green.”

That character understood promise and the hope of something far deeper than many around him. The green-ness surprised him, buoyed him, compelled him, inspired him. Ahmad was so similar! He understood what success and leadership entail, the hard work necessary, and on top of that offered us the sweetest of souls to know.

It is his promise that first thrilled us to get to know him; it is that promise cut short that we now mourn in our community.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Postcard from Nearby

Last week at this time I was still deciding among my three proposed plans for the upcoming Easter weekend: I thought I might go to Beirut, or maybe Cyprus, or then perhaps Sharm-el-Shiekh on the Red Sea. I have a plane ticket to Beirut from last May that had to be cancelled and I need to use it by this mid-May, so that was why Beirut sat at the top of the pile. I have been meaning to go to Cyprus, and then I still want to go up to Mount Sinai again, and thought a sunrise service where God spoke to Moses could lend an air of drama. Where to go…it is strange when you are abroad because, naturally, you are not tethered to the home base and traditions of your family.

My most glamorous Easter, I suppose, was 25 years ago, when as a college student abroad I met in Rome with my great friends Jill and Steve. We all had been studying abroad and this was our first time to all three meet up together and share what our experiences had been like, respectively, in Salzburg, Florence, and London. We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to be in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday with Pope John Paul II bidding his Easter wishes in 65 languages and taking communion with hundreds of thousands of people. I have only the happiest memories of that Easter Sunday—a gorgeous day, talking on the telephone to my grandmother who could hardly believe she was speaking to me from Europe, and eating as much tortellini and gelato as we could afford.

As last week played out, I decided not to go anywhere. On one hand, my decision to stay around came out of an article I read on-line about a famous sermon, “The True Wilderness,” by an Anglican theologian who urged Christians to “keep Lent” in a more true fashion. As I read the minister’s words, I realized that my plans had a somewhat Las Vegas-y feel to them, and maybe I should have some sort of pilgrimage, not unlike Jesus’ own wandering in the desert. I mean I have desert just down the street! There was another reason why staying around had an odd appeal: my wonderful friend Lubna, an administrative assistant at the school and a tried-and-true ally, had secured for me appointments with an eye doctor and with a dentist. You have to understand that I have been meaning to go visit these doctors for about 18 months, and I never take the time during the hectic and never-ending school week. Between a desire to enter into a Lenten rhythm of “giving up and taking on” and a desire to check on my physical health, I scrapped the plans to go abroad.

Most of my colleagues, naturally, had planned to wing their way somewhere else, so I knew the weekend would be one of solitude. I have no problem with solitude. I rarely indulge in it so it is a welcome prospect. I decided to borrow from our library the mini-series from 1977 I remembered watching as a young one entitled, Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of those spectaculars with a cast like Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Anne Bancroft. I toyed with the idea of joining the church I attend in Amman down at the Baptismal site for early Easter services. Anyway, as I looked at the weekend, I decided I wanted to re-read the Gospel accounts and just see what new things I could pick up from watching the movie, spending some time alone, and actually reading the biblical Easter story (maybe compare it with the mini-series).

As I watched the movie, I did have to deal with a certain Franco Zefferelli 1970s golden mysticism (he was the director) but what I really loved about the film was how much the sets and locations looked like the Middle East that I recognize! When I saw the film in the 6th grade I am sure I never thought I would live here, but as I reveled in the landscapes I appreciated their attention to detail as to the landscape of this area. I also enjoyed the attention to art historical detail with the Roman buildings and costumes. Anyway, while the film was not very spiritually uplifting, it was striking how well the terrain looked like my home of the last 32 months.

As I watched the film, and we joined Jesus and the disciples in the upper room for their Passover seder, it caught me off-guard how relaxed everyone was—they were reclining! It just seemed strange since no artist that I have studied (like Leonardo, or Giotto, or Castagno, etc.) ever showed Jesus and his bros so relaxed. But of course—that is what you do here in the Middle East around mealtime anyway. So—okay, you have to remember I am alone and not busy out doing things—I get the gospel and discover the verse in John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved reclined next to him.” This just got me thinking about those guys. What do we know about them? What do the movies and paintings reveal about them? Ahhhh…here is that reflection I hoped might happen.

We know that Jesus and his twelve men were local celebrities. There must have been a kind of magic about them. They went everywhere together and wherever they went, things happened, crowds gathered, storms were stilled, people were fed, others were healed, others forgiven. I imagine that some politicians and other celebrities showed up to see them. There must have been parties with food and wine and animated conversation and I would guess public arguments probably broke out.

So, I wondered, what happened when they stepped out of the public eye? What were they like in private, out of ear shot and out of view of the media and the masses?

That verse from John gives us a peek at a personal life.

In the movie Jesus is played as stiffly as ever, but I got a better sense of the disciples, and certainly a better glimpse of Judas. So as I watched the movie, I multi-tasked, and looked through those gospel accounts seeking more information about those disciples. I wondered about them for awhile—what had they been like, how had this evangelizing mission transformed them, how they were frightened or boastful or sarcastic or sensible.

On Saturday I attended the church in Amman where I can usually be found on Saturday evenings. It was not really an Easter feel—no one wore new clothes, and I missed the lily-saturated sanctuary of my childhood church at Price Hill Baptist Church in Cincinnati. But the sermon title, “Resurrection is Go!” reminded me of my mother and one of her favorite bible verses. Since she had been in love with missionary work, she was particularly attracted to the “Great Commission” verse at the end of the gospels when Jesus urged those friends, those disciples, to “Go ye into all the world…” Indeed, if you know our family well, you may know the story of my mother making a speech in front of a state-wide church organization and exhorting them—with her cane raised in the air—to “Go, ye!”

So Easter morning dawns, and I knew I wanted to partake in the sunrise part of Easter. I have happy memories of my childhood experiences at Mt. Echo Park, high above Cincinnati, shivering in the cold as my parents’ sunday school class celebrated the moments when the women showed up at the tomb and found that Jesus was not there. Last year, when I was home in Cincinnati for Easter, my dad and I attended a sunrise service as usual.

I decided not to go down to the Baptism site—I know it would’ve been interesting being in a spot where Easter has been publicly celebrated since the 320s. But I decided to drive over to Mt. Nebo instead and just, kind of, hang out with God. Mt. Nebo is the spot about 20 minutes away from here, where Moses died, and there is a church at the top dating back to the 6th or 7th century. It just felt in keeping with my weekend to continue the solitude and stare down into the plunging valley that looks right at Jerusalem. I could sit and stare at the city, just about 40 miles away, where it all transpired.

Let’s go back to that upper room scene. Without explanation, Jesus takes off his robe and fills a basin with water, and washes the feet of his disciples, one after another, wordlessly engaging in this tender act. It is then that Jesus delivers a farewell address, or even a last will and testament. “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another.” If we think of this as his last will and testament, think of what he possesses: love. This is what he bequeaths to his followers: love.

Buddhism, by contrast, teaches the means to enlightenment, ultimate liberation, nirvana.

Islam teaches submission, or surrender, to Allah.

Judaism teaches a means to keep a covenant with the One God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

So sitting on this mountaintop, with the sun coming up behind me (I forgot that Mt. Nebo is perfect for sunset, actually, not sunrise!!) I pondered the heart of Christianity. I don’t know which is harder, more arduous and difficult, the attempt to achieve enlightenment, or the attempt to love one’s enemies. But they are different.

There it was on the horizon—the city of Jerusalem. My colleague Charlie is there right now. I am eager to hear what it was like to be there during Easter and Passover. I was comfortable on the side of the mountain, alone, staring down at the Dead Sea, over into Israel, thinking how Abraham of old left the proven pathways of his homeland, of the Eastern wise ones who followed a star in search of a savior, for those gutsy twelve who left their fishing nets at the invitation to “follow me,” and for Jesus too, who wandered in the very wilderness before me.

The silliest thing popped in my head as I sat there pondering the biblical narratives—I thought of my visit to the Grand Canyon in 2004…throughout the Grand Canyon National Park, an arid climate not unlike the very one in which I sat, there are signs posted that read,
“Stop! Drink Water! You are thirsty, whether you know it or not.”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Twelve Familiar Jurors

A week from right now I will be enjoying yet another open’in of another show—I think it is my 62nd show to open, but frankly, I have lost count.

The play we will present to the KA community is one of my warhorses, the tight 90-minute no-intermission drama originally produced for 1950s television, and then as a major motion picture as Twelve Angry Men. Since I have always opted to cast the play with males and females, one must adjust the title to Twelve Angry Jurors.

I chose this play for a couple of reasons: one, there is no budget, so one certainly can quickly cross off dozens, nay hundreds, of possible productions, and this play requires no outlay whatsoever. You find a space in which to perform, grab a good sturdy table and some chairs, get a couple of regular props, and boom—you got a play. Secondly, I chose this play, even more than the monetary prudence of reason number one, because it is a director’s feast—no other production values to distract a director (you know, like sets and costumes and tricky effects and lighting cues, et cetera) and one can really work with a team of actors on effective, naturalistic acting. Third, this play is close to my heart—a play I have directed before, very memorably, in 1994, 1997, 2001, and 2005.

This year I decided to direct two plays in the spring, and I needed cheap (have I mentioned that?) and I sought out feasts for an actor and a director, and plays with messages to both the heart and the mind. I decided on Twelve Angry Jurors and Our Town, plays that I have directed at both Charlotte Latin and Hackley. I decided to celebrate the ‘quotidian’ this year, and save on the money but not on the heart.

One major difference in directing the play in Jordan has nothing to do with my actors in Jordan. When I have done this play in the past, it has always been a play at the end of a season, and actually, at the end of the high school dramatic careers for some of my most beloved actors. The play has always been cheap, but it has always been part of a last-ditch effort to work with my dear actors one last time. Here, that longevity just doesn’t exist yet. I have only directed one other play, and for many, I cast them in their first play ever in this one. So that is different. Instead of Twelve Angry Jurors being the 13th play like with Eric Zion, or the 10th play like Harrison Unger, this is for some of them the first opportunity to breathe life into a dramatic character and work with a cast at cultivating excellence.

The first time I repeated a play I worried that I would simply live in the past—shouldn’t every play be the first time to go to the well? I have decided that there are a handful of plays that I must do every few years, and some of you readers know which plays those are: I Never Saw Another Butterfly I have directed at three of my four schools, Our Country’s Good, and now Twelve Angry Jurors I will have directed at three of my four schools, along with soon Our Town.

Twelve Angry Jurors is a play as bland as butter and as brilliant as diamonds. The setting and premise is so simple. Twelve jurors, strangers before this court case, are sequestered to debate the guilt or innocence of a young, unseen, defendant. It is an actor’s feast because all 12 actors are on stage the entire time, and you get to hone the skills of an actor in that the way you sit, sigh, drum your fingers, drink water out of the water cooler, engage with the other jurors, and raise your hand to vote speaks, volumes about your character. The playwright gives you little to work with—you don’t even have a name, you are simply your juror number, and while you can guess how the play will go, it can still be nail-biting in watching the narrative unfold.

I have always staged the play so that an audience is surrounding the jury room of actors. At Charlotte Latin I placed the actors on stage in a theater of the round; at Hackley we performed it in the Lindsay Room, a great space where about 100 observers could be just a few feet away from the action. One year we performed the play while Timothy McVeigh was on trial, and many of the audience told me later it gave them a chance to reflect on the American judicial system and ponder how we do what we say in trying our criminals.

Last year, for my first play in Jordan, I consciously avoided doing an “American” play—I wanted to just show a little more than my American roots. But, since American plays are what I really know, this year I chose two quintessential American plays that I think will transcend place and time and can easily reach a Jordanian audience. One of the messages of Twelve Angry Jurors is how we should look past stereotypes and not shallowly judge people, and that we need to think about how we discuss a “them” group characteristic. I think this message can play effectively anywhere in the world.

Since I have done this play 5 times over the last 16 years, I know the play thoroughly. And when I cast the play, I enjoy the nostalgia of thinking back to previous casts and enjoying how much the actors in this particular play have enriched me. The “Henry Fonda” character to me will always be the “Chuck Edwards part,” the student-actor who first played the role for me in 1994. Juror #8 is the young man who acts as the moral compass in the play and instructs and guides the jury to think a little harder about what is a reasonable doubt (if you know Chuck, well, you know why I call it as I do). David played the part in 1997, and Tom in 2001, and Kenrick in 2005…my trip down memory lane, each time it is interesting to note how the actor must play a sage role and avoid treacle-y didacticism. This year I cast a younger actor in the role, not a senior, but a sophomore, so the audience won’t automatically guess that he is the voice of reason and compassion. I cast Mounir in the part—we have never worked together—in large part because he is a talented pianist and I knew he knows of a work ethic. How strange to cast someone I barely know in a part that has always been someone I knew so thoroughly!

Then there is the part of the “bigot,” a part I have always used in which to cast an actress. This is a meaty role with a killer monologue at the end (I call them “arias” in this play). This has always gone to my Meryl-Streep actress of that year, and the pedigree is rich as I recount that Catherine played the part in 1994, and Elizabeth in 1997, Liz in 2001, and Alyssa in 2005. Now I have another newcomer—a tall, elegant actress named Hana who is more softspoken than I have often elicited from actresses, but she is lethal and outstanding.

The third of the “showiest” parts is the loudmouth, angry, and embittered father, a part played by Lee J. Cobb in the movie, and played by dynamite actors in my productions. This part needs to feel as if it is essayed by a 50-ish actor, a terrific feat for an adolescent actor. This is a part that must be more than blather and bravado, and must touch the heart as the jurors, and the audience, realize he is hurting due to the alienation of his son. This juror also has a showstopper of an aria at the end of the play, and reminds me of Mama Rose’s breakdown in Gypsy. Again, the gallery of actors whom have tackled this role reads as a veritable who’s who of my great actors: Eric in 1994, and then Brent in 1997, and Kieran in 2001, and Harrison in 2005.

But as I said, each part is juicy in this play since all the actors (except the Guard, who appears from time to time, but even then I have cast the guard with actors who are just great to know, like Brent in 1994 and now Suhayb) are on “stage” the whole time, and each is afforded moments in which to shine. Here are the actors who are my line-up for the 2010 version:


I don’t direct them to emulate anyone else’s performance, but the rehearsal room is quite crowded, in a cosmic way, for me, as I think about Lyde and Bennett and Jen and Soyoung and Brian and Jake and Lani and Becky and Junko and Ethan and Melissa and Julia and all these great actors and how they have peppered this play for me over the last 16 years. You know, I am reminded of the interesting Ogden Nash observation as I contemplate this play and the casts: “Middle age is when you’ve met so many people that every new person you meet reminds you of someone else.”
I just have to do this play every few years—it is such a great experience as you instruct the students how to “embroider” their character. This morning I was thinking about this play as I thumbed through some copies of Time magazine while on the stairmaster. I came across the obituary of Doris “Granny D” Haddock who died this last month at the age of 100. Haddock is a woman who at age 94 ran for a senate seat in New Hampshire. I remembered her spunky, quotidian self from the news, and when they recounted her comment, “Democracy is not something you watch—it is something you do!” it reminded me of how I feel about theater: it is not just something I watch, but something I must do.

I will let you know how the week and the performances go…

Let’s see how they handle the butter and diamonds.