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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: After a Brief Intermission...

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Everything I need to know about people who look like me, I already learned from Neil Simon.

After a brief intermission...

A funny thing happened on my way to writing my second weekly Sunday Morning Michael Dale column. An accident left me with a broken hand and two broken ribs. I'm fine, mending at home, but I'll probably be unable to attend theatre until sometime in January at the earliest. So below is mostly what would have been posted last week. I'll have some notes about tick, tick... Boom! next week and then will be taking a hiatus until I'm back in audiences again. Please click the envelope icon above to be notified when new columns are posted. Thanks!

Everything I need to know about people who look like me, I already learned from Neil Simon.

It wasn't long after I was born that Neil Simon had his first play on Broadway. While these two events aren't exactly connected, they do explain the vision of Broadway, and of theatre in general, I grew up with.

Raised in a small Long Island village roughly 45 minutes from Broadway via the Long Island Railroad and almost exclusively populated by people who more or less looked like me, by the time I was old enough to get a sense of what theatre was, hits like Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and Plaza Suite had established "Neil Simon comedy" as the gold standard of successful commercial theatre. When I began acting in high school, college and community theatre, calling a play Neil Simon-like was a high compliment, suggesting rapid-fire laughs of an upper middle-brow nature that mixed Manhattan sophistication with snazzy one-liners.

The first non-musical Broadway show I saw was Neil Simon's California Suite, where Tammy Grimes and John Cunningham bounced clever banter about the differences between New York and Los Angeles off of each other and Jack Weston inspired howls of laugher as a husband desperately trying to hide a prostitute from his wife. I didn't really notice how the vast majority of audience members that afternoon, just like the people on stage, looked more or less like me. Growing up, that was pretty much the default setting.

High school trips to Broadway shows fueled my passion for live theatre, but it wasn't until I was out of college that, with the help of incredibly cheap tickets supplied by papering services, I began spending more time in venues far away from Times Square. And that's where, more and more, I found myself in audiences with people who mostly did not look like me, watching and listening to artists who did not share my race, gender nor sexuality who told stories of their default setting experiences, the likes of which were never covered by Neil Simon.

I wasn't so naïve as to not be aware that different people had different experiences and different ways of telling their stories, but in the 1980s and 90s there weren't enough of them to be seen practicing their art in the part of town that mayors and tourist guidebooks pushed as the artistic center of the most culturally diverse spot on the planet.

You want to know a good way to learn about people of a variety of cultures? Try committing yourself to seeing and writing about around 150 shows a year. As a New York theatre critic during a time when, primarily through the programming of non-profit Off-Broadway companies, the diversity of the city's stages was trickling up, more and more I was tasked to write about theatre pieces that dealt with issues and situations I was in no way familiar with, and needed to review plays that I'm positive I was not fully getting.

I felt my task was to communicate, especially for people who looked like me or who shared my gender identity or sexuality, the experience of seeing the play in a way that encouraged people to attend stories that may not be their own. Notes supplied by press agents helped explain nuances and press scripts were my guides to the playwright's preferred adjectives and pronouns to identify the characters. I kept checking to make sure my wording expressed the opinions of author's characters, rather than my own, and was conscious of the fact that no one member of a group speaks for them all.

I was raised to be an audience member who partook in active listening; the practice of silently watching a play, save for impulsive laughter or moments buttoned for applause, in order to take in everything the artists are presenting and allowing it to process internally. But there are other cultures that encourage more demonstrative theatre-going behavior, with vocal and physical reactions accepted as an important part of the experience. I used to think that was rude, but lately I've been using my active listening skills to consider that for many people I share theatergoing with, this is a part of their upbringing.

It took a year and a half of not having any shows on Broadway to amplify discussion about what Broadway and other higher profile theatre venues are truly missing. To borrow a term from Lisa Kron, our house is so much bigger than the rooms many of us have been limiting ourselves to. Hopefully, the sudden influx of plays by people of color that has dominated the early months of this season is just the beginning of a movement that will eventually give us a Broadway that consistently looks like the diverse city it calls home. I plan to help out by doing a lot more active listening.

"Does being Black scare you as much as it scares me?"

That was one of the questions playwright Mansa Ra asked four friends as the impetus for what became his gently lyrical, yet solidly impactful In The Southern Breeze, which is receiving a beautifully engrossing production via director Christopher D. Betts at Greenwich Village's Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: After a Brief Intermission...
Victor Williams, Charles Browning,
Travis Raeburn and Biko Eisen-Martin.
(Photo: David Rauch)

With a title taken from Abel Meeropol's lyric for Strange Fruit, a song that, when recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, was frequently banned from the airwaves for its disturbing description of lynched Black men, the 65-minute piece contemplates, as the playwright notes, "the history behind the perpetual noose America leashes around every Black man at birth."

While the audience never literally sees this noose, it seems to be viewed quite clearly by the unnamed contemporary man (Allan K. Washington) who opens the play. Of some comfort is that COVID quarantine has offered what he considers an acceptable excuse for not leaving his apartment, and has at least temporarily relieved him of the burden of flashing his Obama smile that puts white people at ease.

In another scene, we witness an encounter between four Black men who have apparently died in acts of rebellion; Madison (Charles Browning), an escaped enslaved man from the 1700s, Lazarus (Victor Williams), a post-Civil War sharecropper and union activist, Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin), a 1970s Black Panther and Tony (Travis Raeburn), a 1990s gay rights activist.

As they discover connections between them, it becomes apparent that the figurative noose of white society takes on many subtler, more attractive forms.

The first time I saw red-headed, freckle-faced, Washington Heights-born Bronx-raised Nuyorican Michele Carlo...

...she was wearing a cornucopia headpiece adorned not only with assorted tropical fruit, but with a pork chop, a bag of Café Bustelo, a can of Goya beans and a pack of Newport cigarettes. The audience at Surf Reality, that fun-sized experimental performance space that used to lurk just below where First Avenue reinvented itself into Allen Street, was drinking it in and eating it up.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: After a Brief Intermission...
Michele Carlo (Photo: G. Balkcom)
From the mid-1990s on, Carlo and great many other emerging actors, storytellers, variety performers and plain old exhibitionists were developing their stage chops at Surf Reality during the heyday of Faceboyz Open Mic. Those who gathered enough of a following to book regular gigs at the venue wore the moniker "Art Star."

What made Michele Carlo an Art Star was her wildly lovable character Carmen Mofongo, a street-wise Puerto Rican reincarnation of Carmen Miranda named for the savory plantain dish Carlo grew up on. As Carmen Mofongo, Carlo embraced the stereotypes associated with her ethnicity and proudly threw them back as a comedically rich cultural heritage. ("Coquito is a delicious sweet creamy blend of rum, coconut, rum, milk, rum, eggs, rum, vanilla, rum, spices and ... rum. It's very tasty!")

I've enjoyed many Michele Carlo performances in the decades since, mostly as a storyteller with The Moth and other storytelling organizations; particularly when she tells about how a temporary employer's incorrect assumption about her fluency in Spanish led to some embarrassing (and unintended) racy ad copy for a shampoo.

Her terrific book, Fish Out Of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks, is a collection of essays about her Bronx upbringing as a child whose unique look led others to regard her as an outsider, and her teenage rebellion through the arts. Being around the same age, I noted that despite the vast differences between her experiences and mine as a product of Long Island, our developing lives did converge at a beloved ballpark, Shea Stadium.

And I also had the pleasure of directing her in what became, by necessity, perhaps history's least subtle production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard; when actors performing outdoors in an acoustically challenging community garden had to compete with the weekend noise from a busy Upper West Side street, including the recorded melody from an ice cream truck parked right next to the playing space.

She's been called a Lower East Side icon and a star storyteller, but unlike stars and icons in other locales and artistic fields, the rent gets paid through less glamorous day jobs. And that's a recurring theme in her autobiographical solo piece, What a Difference a Year Makes, which I caught in its closing performance at the Kraine Theatre as part of the 2021 Gotham Storytelling Festival. It's a common challenge among New York artists of a niche popularity, trying to obtain more lucrative mainstream popularity as an "alternative" performer.

After recalling how the sudden lack of work and places to go in the early months of COVID had turned her into "... one of those shady middle-aged busybodies who lurked behind their windows, getting their thrills off everyone else's life because they didn't have one of their own," she ventures further back to remember years that, under slightly different circumstances, might have made a big difference in her life.

There was the time a car crash left her with a visible scar and required her to wear braces for a couple of years, which ended her accelerating career as an indie film actress ("I'm the nurse from Steve Buscemi's nightmares who helps a psychiatric doctor take him away"). And the time when Carlo and her then-husband risked that Carmen Mofongo was ready to shine in a brighter spotlight, so they used all their savings to finance an Off-Off Broadway show for the character, which was to begin performances September 13th, 2001.

More relatable to a wider population is the difference made the year she turned 15, when "this pot-bellied awkward teenager transformed into "... a still-awkward teenager who suddenly possessed what even my most critical Titi (Auntie) had to admit was a 'fine culito.'"

For 45 years Carlo, like so many women, has been on guard against boys and childish men who feel it's their privilege to randomly help themselves to touching their bodies. ("You just grabbed a 57-year-old ass, your Mama must be real proud!")

Michele Carlo can next be seen on December 1st at 7pm in a livestreamed show presented by The Story Collider, and you can check for other upcoming performances on her website. She always seems to be popping up behind a microphone somewhere in town. And wherever it is, I'm sure she'll have an interesting story to tell.

Curtain line...

My mother sang with Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie. One of my older brothers played Bob Dylan and Joan Baez albums on the family stereo all day. But when I was a teenager, the first protest music I personally connected with was on the Anyone Can Whistle Original Broadway Cast Album.


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