Mount Vernon, Baltimore, Spring 2014
Sex. It can be fantastic, it can be terrible, but mostly it’s just kind of…awkward.
Join Potluck Storytelling from 7-9:30 pm at Area 405 for an evening of enlightening, shocking, and cringe-inducing tales of the way we deal with that most primal of animal behaviors. There is no charge, but bring a snack to share.
- a neuroscientist who has an unusual familiarity with elephant semen and the lovemaking habits of fruit flies;
- an actor who has struggled through the bizarreness of onstage sex;
- a public health advocate who’s had lots of uncomfortable conversations with young people about STD’s;
- a dad faced with the spine-tingling prospect of giving “The Talk” to his adolescent son;
- and more!
There will be slots for audience contributions, so think of a 3-min. “awkward” story of your own that you’d like to tell.
While the ideas presented below have been kicking around in my head for a while, this entry was most proximately inspired by a Facebook post which was picked up and shared all over social media in recent days. It reads, in part:
“Instead of saying ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ it would do more good for white people [and non-Black people] in solidarity with the Trayvon Martin case to recognize all the ways they are Zimmerman.
“As in, if you live in a ‘safe’ suburban or gated community that is mostly white and that is considered a ‘good’ neighborhood because it excludes people of colour [especially excluding Black people] then you benefit from the same conditions that created Zimmerman.”
Last Saturday night, while walking my dog through the “good” neighborhood adjacent to the “bad” neighborhood I live in, I noticed a group of five young, African-American men walking down the middle of the otherwise deserted street. Although they had not noticed me and did not engage me in any way, I tugged on the dog’s leash and quickly walked in the opposite direction.
As I increased my pace back toward my apartment, I was struck by a sickening thought: I am George Zimmerman.
Let me back up. I live in an apartment within a rowhouse on Greenmount Avenue, which has a reputation throughout Baltimore for drugs and violence. The communities to the east of Greenmount, including Waverly and Pen-Lucy, are predominantly low-income and African-American. The blocks are laid out in a more or less grid formation and contain a seemingly paradoxical combination of high population density and high vacant housing rates.
Here’s a map with Greenmount as the dividing line. The neighborhood on the right side is the one I’m talking about.
Immediately to the west of Greenmount is a series of non-contiguous enclaves of predominantly white, upper-middle class homeowners. These communities are not quite as densely populated than those on the other side of Greenmount, yet there’s not a vacant house in sight. The streets are greener, more curvilinear, and much less heavily trafficked. Many are one-way, which makes neighborhoods like Oakenshawe and Guilford difficult to enter, difficult to exit, and virtually impossible to navigate.
Check out the demographic breakdown of the two sides of Greenmount. (Blue is for African-American residents, green is for white residents.)
Representing the profound racial, economic, and class divisions that separate these two sides of Baltimore is a mere six inches of concrete. A continuation of the sidewalk along Greenmount prevents any vehicles from turning into the more affluent neighborhoods. And although that low berm does not impede foot traffic, its presence acts as an astoundingly effective deterrent to any pedestrian ingress from Greenmount or the neighborhoods to the east.
[The phenomenal podcast 99% Invisible committed an entire episode to the architectural and design elements that perpetuate the segregation of these neighborhoods and their residents.]
The result is that if you’re African-American who lives on the east side of Greenmount at 35th St., you’re going to feel profoundly out of place if you walk just a couple of hundred yards outside your house. At the very least, you’ll receive sidelong stares from the people trimming their lawns. Likely as not, you’ll be accosted by the security service that patrols the tree-lined boulevards in vehicles with flashing yellow police-style lights. The message is literally built into the architecture of these neighborhoods: you are not welcome.
I choose to walk my pit bull mix in Oakenshawe for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she’s a shelter dog with a lot of anxiety that can turn into aggression around other dogs and people, so it’s better for everyone’s well-being, including hers, to walk her in a less traveled area. Secondly, it’s frankly more pleasant to walk alongside flower gardens and flagstones than amid broken glass and the roar of the MTA as it belches exhaust in its wake. Occasionally I’ll encounter unfriendly stares from residents who don’t like pit bulls, but I never once have been stopped by the security patrol.
The reason for this is white privilege.
White privilege allows me to walk my dog when and where I like. White privilege permits me to live where I choose, within certain financial constraints. White privilege determines how people respond to me when I greet them on the street. White privilege was a factor in deciding how and where I was educated, how and where I found employment, how I plan for my economic future. White privilege helps define my social and professional networks. White privilege is the main reason I don’t get hassled by the neighborhood watch in Guilford, even when I’m strolling down the street after midnight.
I am a legatee of white privilege. I am its beneficiary. I reap its rewards even though I cannot afford a house in the affluent neighborhood, my ethnic heritage is Latino, and I look like this:
As a frame of reference:
Back to last Saturday night: when I saw that group of men coming toward me on the street, my immediate response was fear for my safety. I thought about the verdict that had been handed down just hours before, and about the anger and anguish that I might be feeling that night, were I a young African-American man walking through an unfriendly neighborhood. I considered my own status as a fortyish, middle-class white man who enjoys the nightly privilege of strolling with impunity through what is virtually a gated community. I imagined a worst-case scenario arising from a hypothetical confrontation. And I chose to go back home.
The fact that I felt fear and made that choice had nothing to do with anything those five men did or said. It had everything to do with the way I have internalized the racist attitudes and responses that are woven into the fabric of our society. It had to do with the fact that if the neighborhood watch had rolled up at that moment, they would have made immediate assumptions about who “belonged” on that street and who did not. It had to do with which of us the legal system would intrinsically favor if some notional altercation had actually come to pass.
When it comes to the Trayvon Martin case, I have no answers. I don’t sympathize with George Zimmerman and I certainly don’t have any use for the fools, zealots, and panderers who have already made him cause célèbre. But neither am I compelled by my white liberal peers in social media forums who so casually and confidently reduce the case to the simple categories of “racist” and “non-racist” (and they know which group they belong to, thank you very much).
Structural racism affects all of us. Those of us who enjoy white privilege are complicit in it to varying degrees, but we’re all accountable. If I enjoy white privilege, it doesn’t matter whether I choose to think of myself as a “good person;” it’s not about that. It doesn’t matter whether or not I feel “white guilt;” it’s not about that, either. What matters, I think, is that I honestly consider my own role in perpetuating or reducing racism, and then – here’s the important part – do something more than changing my Twitter icon.
So I’m not George Zimmerman, not really. But I acknowledge that in the context of structural racism, privilege, and the protection of law, I have a lot more in common with him than I care to admit. As deeply troubling as that realization is, it strengthens my resolve to not delude myself into thinking this is somebody else’s problem.
Hopefully that’s a decent place to start.
What do you get when you throw together a soprano trio, a handful of beatboxers, a griot soul singer, an experimental musician, and a death metal screamer ? ’Embody: A Festival of the Vocal Arts,’ held last month at the Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center.
Launched three years ago by Baltimore beatboxer Dominic Shodekeh Talifero, ‘Embody’ is a lab-style series that convenes a cappella musicians for live performances that celebrate vocal arts traditions from around the world. An accomplished Tuvan-style throat singer and professional vocal percussionist who is as comfortable performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as he is in more conventional hip-hop settings, Shodekeh loves to mix different styles, disciplines, and personalities. “Going for the gold by jumping off a cliff” is how he describes this artistic mashup.
On June 26, Shodekeh led us cheerfully off that cliff and into a swirling, sublime cacophony unlike anything I’d heard before. Sopranos Joanne Moorer and Juliana Marin, along with mezzo Alana Kolb (pictured above) stepped boldly outside the comfort zone of operatic formalism to create an improv set which Shodekeh called “insanely and randomly gorgeous.”
Other artists included Metal Peet, the guitarist and screamer with the group Intentional Trainwreck; Jean-Francis Varre, founder of the group Sahel, which showcases the diversity of music arising from the African diaspora; experimental musician Kate Porter; and multimedia performance artist Elgaroo Brenza.
The highlight of the evening, at least for me, was the opportunity to hear some local beatbox all-stars do their thing. In the video below, Shodekeh teams up with Queen Earth and The Bow-Legged Gorilla to generate an awe-inspiring hurricane of sound.
I even got in on the action myself. To my surprise, the host pulled me up to lead off the evening with a set of minor-key, early American hymn tunes. I was joined on my last song by Shodekeh, actor Sheila Gaskins, spoken word artist Aileen Sabira, and my wife Jessica Keyes, a multi-instrumentalist and singer. There’s no recording of that set, but check the vid below to get a basic idea of the sound.
The next ‘Embody’ is in the works, so like it on FB and stay tuned. You’ll hear music like you’ve never even imagined.
Buck Jabaily gives Baltimore the Romeo and Juliet it needs.
The plays of William Shakespeare are amazingly durable. They remain remarkably relevant across generations, settings, and cultures, and gamely accommodate all types of adaptation. This is particularly true of Romeo & Juliet, which is the subject of a fresh interpretation by Baltimore Performance Kitchen (BPK), in collaboration with Single Carrot Theatre (June 20-30).
This version of Romeo & Juliet is “site-specific,” in the words of director J. Buck Jabaily, who chose the multi-use arts space Area 405 as the play’s setting. A former brewery and fan factory, Area 405 is located in Greenmount West, one of the neighborhoods that comprise what is now called the Station North Arts & Entertainment District.
The building’s transition, from an anchor of the local industrial economy a century ago, to a cultural venue in what is currently an economically distressed neighborhood, provides a rich background and context for BPK’s take on Shakespeare’s venerable tale of feuding families and ill-fated lovers.
Jabaily was invited to stage the production at Area 405 by the center’s founder and director, Stewart Watson, who said she has long envisioned the famous balcony scene being performed on a fire escape in the building’s courtyard.
In this retelling, the Capulets [full disclosure: I play Lord Capulet] represent Baltimore of 1913: staid, conservative, wealthy, and white. The Montagues, by contrast, reflect contemporary Station North residents: younger, less affluent, less formal, more diverse. These distinctions are manifest in the casting of the lovers. Juliet is played by Annie Unger, a blonde, hazel-eyed teen just out of high school, while Romeo is played — as a woman — by Michelle Antoinette “LOVE the Poet” Nelson, an African-American spoken-word artist in her early thirties.
The casting and venue choices have a profound impact on the interpretation of the play. Without altering Shakespeare’s text (beyond trimming passages for time and changing the gender pronouns that refer to Romeo), Jabaily has crafted a production that explores themes of race, class, culture, place, sexuality, and cross-generational tensions. The contempt and outrage that Tybalt (Paul Diem) displays toward Romeo take on topical and sinister undertones, given the latter’s interracial, intergenerational, same-sex romance with Juliet. The street brawls that result in the deaths of Tybalt, Mercutio (Aldo Pantoja), and Paris (Richard Goldberg) are sobering echoes of the violence that continues to plague Baltimore.
The production even sheds new light on the feud between the two families, which is unexplained in the source text. Since the Capulets and the Montagues represent different periods in the city’s history, their conflict can be attributed to an existential clash of epochs and cultures: the struggle between “old” Baltimore and “new” Baltimore to occupy the same place at the same time.
Just as those boundaries of time and space are peeled back in this rendition, the wall between performers and audience is similarly porous. The show begins with a brief conversation between actors and onlookers about the backstory of the play and the history of the Station North district. Jabaily has even reserved a handful of roles — Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosaline, Lady Montague, and the fateful apothecary — for adventurous audience members who feel like becoming part of the show.
Even attendees who choose not to participate directly should not expect to merely sit passively through the performance. The play starts in an alley, then moves out onto Oliver Street for Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech, before finally proceeding into the Area 405 courtyard for the masquerade ball and the ensuing chain of unfortunate events. The chairs are shuffled and reconfigured according to the demands of different scenes. At times, the audience may find themselves leaning in to catch the dialogue above the ambient urban noises of train whistles, police helicopters, bass-heavy car stereos, and talkative pedestrians.
The result is a play that is as far removed from the Shakespeare of floppy hats and flowery accents as Station North is from 16th-century Verona. Like Baltimore itself, Jabaily’s Romeo and Juliet is earthy, unpretentious, and diverse, by turns absurdly funny and shockingly violent.
The closing scene carries a particularly potent lesson for those of us who love the city. Though the lovers’ suicide marks the climax of the piece, the final action in the play is the reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues. Through poetry written centuries ago, Shakespeare reminds us that hope awaits us even on the far side of tragedy, and that we can overcome the bitterest of lines that divide us, so long as we are willing to reach across them and clasp each other’s hands.
Ask a child to show you her most prized possession in the whole universe, and most likely she’ll hold up a toy. That’s what Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti discovered over the 18 months he spent photographing kids around the world for his Toy Stories project, which is written up today in the online photo magazine Feature Shoot.
Galimberti explores the universality of being a kid amidst the diversity of the countless corners of the world; saying, “at their age, they are pretty all much the same; they just want to play.”
His photos are as heartrending as they are simple. In image after image, a child gazes directly at the viewer, with one or more toys at his or her feet. Some are smiling, some not. Some have an abundance of toys, others only one treasured stuffed animal. One consistent theme that links all the kids is the obvious pride they feel at showing off the objects that mean the most to them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s prized possessions as I prepare for next week’s Potluck Storytelling presents ‘Show & Tell’ event. Oftentimes the stuff we hold onto most tightly isn’t necessarily a family heirloom or an expensive gift, but something with almost no objective value. A kid’s dilapidated sock monkey. An old bus token. A scuffed pair of cheap shoes.
Here’s one of mine. It’s a little figurine of the Chinese folk deity Budai (Hotei in Japanese) that was given to me by a young Bosnian refugee in 2000, when I worked for the International Rescue Committee.
He had picked it up in Sarajevo before the Bosnian War and he gave it to me just because he thought I might like it. Even though statuettes like these are a dime a dozen in any Chinatown on earth, this one is special to me. It’s not just that the young man got it in the former Yugoslavia before being forced to flee his home country by persecution and violence; it’s that he thought enough to give me a gift, even though it was my job to serve him as best I could.
Through such small gestures and such small objects does humanity redeem itself, I think.
Hold up, I thought. Did that sonofabitch just kick my car?
Baltimore, boys and girls: it can change up on you with a quickness. Watch the video to hear about how two strangers who came to “the knife’s edge of violence” ended up embracing on the street one sunny spring morning in Mobtown.
Recorded at Potluck Storytelling’s “Stories About Living in Baltimore” show at Hamilton Arts on October 27, 2012.
Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7-9pm
Minas Gallery & Boutique, 815 W 36th St., Baltimore
Go to the head of the class! Relive the funnest part of elementary school by bringing in an object and sharing a 5-7-minute story about it.
We all have material stuff that’s meaningful to us. Whether it’s a tool, an item of clothing, a piece of art, or a stick of chewing gum, now’s your chance to share the story behind it. You can talk about its history, describe your relationship to it, or just make something up.
What to bring: yourself, an object, a story about it, and a snack/drink to share. This event is free and open to the public, but space is limited, so mark your calendar now.
“B is for Berwick Avenue…A is for Ann Street…” Glass Mind Theatre community engagement director Alexander Scally shares an acrostic ode to Mobtown at Potluck Storytelling’s October 2012 show, “We Think We’re Normal, but We’re Not: Stories About Living in Baltimore.
Watch the video below to find out how Alex’s childhood neighbors used to borrow wheelchairs to pretend they were disabled and homeless, where the best place in the city is to spot a mattress-dancing seductress, and “why you shouldn’t go to liquor stores after 11 p.m.”
Last summer, I decided to celebrate my 40th birthday by treating myself to a multi-day wilderness survival course in the muggy woodlands of northern Virginia. On November 8, 2012, I told the whole harrowing tale at the Stoop Storytelling Series‘ “Second Stoop” All-Audience Show at the Windup Space in Baltimore.
I learned several important things on this adventure. First, every single aspect of surviving in nature is an even bigger pain in the ass than you expect it to be. Second, li’l furry critters love to eat torches made of oil-soaked toilet paper. And third, I am able to behead, eviscerate, and skin a rabbit using only rocks.
Some photos of my Bear Grylls-style escapade are below. Click the link above to listen to my Stoop story, and if you ever need someone to hunt a squirrel with a stick, I’m your guy.