Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Whipping Man at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre

In the first 120 seconds of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez,  a wounded Confederate soldier collapses inside the door of a derelict ante-bellum home and screams out some names.  A black man cautiously advances from a back room carrying a rifle and lantern.  When he realizes that the soldier is a young man of the household, he kneels, lays his hand on the young man's head, and pronounces a blessing in Hebrew, "Baruch Adonai...." 

It's disorienting to juxtapose Jewish tradition with our Civil War expectations, and instantly moving.  The rest of the play unpacks that moment. Plotwise, we learn who those names are, and what has happened to them.  Themewise, the idea of Southern Jews climaxes in a Seder.

We get highly involved with these characters, thanks to the acting of Jeremy Aggers (Caleb, the soldier), Keith Randolph Smith (Simon, the black man),  Another character who first appears as a truly scary apparition through a window, turns out to be comic relief and also catalyst for truth-telling.   He's "John," played by an appealing young local actor John Stewart.

We are embraced by the set, as the beams of the ceiling stretch out over us; and we embrace these three men as they discover the secrets that each is hiding at the start.

The seder itself is a highpoint.  Improvised from rough wartime resources, this ceremonial meal becomes a celebration of release from slavery.  The takeaway moment follows when John, unable to make a choice, is paralyzed with fear.  This is freedom, his mentor Simon says.  And it's not easy. 

Two other moments stand out, because they are so theatrical, and happen almost out of time.  Late in the show we see a kind of flashback with the soldier Caleb standing (he loses a leg in an early scene that induced audible gasps and squirming early in the show), reciting a letter to his beloved, written in the grandiloquent prose of those 19th century letters.  Another moment is occasioned by the fact that Passover in 1865 was also the Good Friday of Abe Lincoln's assassination. Simon re-enacts his  encounter with Lincoln.  Simon bowed; Lincoln bowed. 

The only thing not to like about the show is its title.  Yes, it relates to a revelation in the plot.  But isn't there something that could relate somehow to the freedom, choice, and Passover? 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Meditation for Holy Week: Liturgy as Theatre

Phil. 3:1 To write the same things to you is not irksome to me.

Until Holy Week, I'd had mixed feelings about Episcopal liturgy. The routines were more comforting than "irksome," but I was new to the church, and her traditions did seem to lack spontaneity. 

Then, one Palm Sunday, I understood how all that repetition amplified the impact of small changes. We waved palms, processed to music with bells, chanted prayers, and hissed, "Crucify him!" on cue. The rest of Holy Week brought changes to setting, lighting, and vestments. We re-enacted the Last Supper and sang more austere music.  It hit me then that liturgy is a year-long drama. In fact, it's a musical!  But we're not the audience: we're the actors.  

That doesn't mean we're faking anything.  When I was a sullen teenager, mom used my membership in the drama club to correct my attitude towards my father. "You like to act. You owe it to your father to act as if you can stand to be around him!"  To make my performance convincing to Dad took the effort to ask about his work, to listen to his music, to appreciate the things he did for me.  No surprise:  Acting led to actuality.

In the same way, in church, we recite eloquent prayers even when we don't feel them, we repeat the Creed even though we doubt, and we line up for Eucharist no matter what. Disciplines of Lent and rich drama of Holy Week add emphasis to a year's liturgy.  Taking time to worship as if it's important makes it so.

Other readings for today:  Psalms 51:1-18(19-20) 69:1-23 Jer. 12:1-16 Phil. 3:1-14 John 12:9-19

(Reflection for the Lent Meditation booklet published privately by "The Pilgrimage," a spiritual formation resource at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Creating Innovators with Homework?

In a speech to the faculties of Atlanta-area independent schools yesterday, author Tony Wagner spoke from experience as teacher, administrator, and educational researcher, one who has spent years studying innovators in industry, arts, and education.  He outlined lists of "three most" and "seven most" important practices listed in his book Creating Innovators.During the Q-and-A session that followed, I waited too long to ask my one-word question, "Homework?"  While I waited, I figured out what he'd probably say.

First, if the homework is intended simply to convey factual information, it's a waste of time.  With the world wide web in our pockets, factual information is now a "commodity," worth little. 

But, what if the homework teaches a skill?   Wagner said, in today's market, "It's not what you know, but what you can do with it."   If the homework is akin to practicing a musical instrument, mastering a certain baseball pitch, or working through a new app, then that's a good kind of work.  Could that, too be done in the classroom?  Teams do drill on the basketball court, but the best players practiced countless hours on their own -- Michael Jordan being the famous example. The kind of skill that has to be mastered alone would be highly important to the student, and a waste of class time.

Because Wagner says that the world's job market puts a premium on collaborative creative work, I suppose that he would prefer that class time be spent in getting teams of students to find -- not "the answers," but alternative solutions to problems.   

What would he say about reading assignments in books of literature or accounts of history?  He'd probably ask the purpose for the assignment.   If it's just to learn the facts, he'd say that's not the best use of a student's after-school time.  If the reading exercises a student's discernment, or the application of a lesson to a text, then that's stretching the student's ability, and a good use of time.  Could that time be spent in the classroom, with the teacher available for one-on-one coaching, and time available for students to compare what they learned?   I'd opt for that, if possible -- simply because our lives after school are so full of other things, like blogging, and exercise, and commuting, and dinner, and rehearsals, etc.

But Wagner puts the highest value on passion, and that gives us a kind of homework that will take time and concentraation outside of class.  "If a young person is passionate about something," he said, "they'll master the skills and acquire the information" as needed.  So class time should go to something my colleague Justin Loudermilk introduced to me, his "20% Project."  He allows students 20% of their class time to collaborate on something they care deeply about, and they all take time outside of class to complete it. 

After his talk on passion, collaboration, and creativity, the very first question from a teacher was about grading.  I'm struck by how often we teachers, threatened by a kind of teaching that isn't like what we experienced, stiff-arm it with a question, "Well, yes, but how are we supposed to grade that?"   Wagner said that he'd recommend having only three grades:  A, B, and "Incomplete."  Sounds like my approach, too: to keep the kids working on a project until it's the best they can do with the objectives they face using the skills they've developed by a deadline. 

After all, I felt affirmed in the choices I've made as a teacher, and motivated to find more ways to collaborate.  My writing students are currently at work "exploring" through research topics of interest to them about which they're curious, asking questions that don't have easy answers.  I wonder if I missed an opportunity to make this, too, collaborative?  I used to have a "magazine" project when I taught history, for which students created a kind of portfolio of essays, stories, time lines, graphs, and reviews related to a chosen theme.  It might be worth considering.

My drama classes do collaborate a lot; next year, with my class time extended from one quarter to a full semester, I should consider more ways to have collaboration. 

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Jung Over: Dreams the Morning After

I awoke this morning, disturbed by a dream in which a friend of mine dealt with his teenaged son by jerking him outside and slapping him.   His son hit him back.  Watching in anguish, I thought the father had made a mistake.  I followed the young man up to his room, where he curled up on his bed.

Now, pioneering psychologist Karl Jung took dreams seriously as helpful communications from our unconscious minds to our reasoning conscious minds.  The unconscious, he said, communicates not in words but in metaphor, using symbols and stories.  In his view, even when we dream of others, we're dreaming of an aspect of ourselves.  

Me and Mia
Awake in the dark, I wondered where my dream came from. 

Then I heard the breathing of my own teenager -- a puppy named Mia --  curled up in her bed.   Yesterday, she was more than usually aggressive towards other dogs in the park, and I'd been more forceful than usual pulling her aside and insisting that she sit and stay.  I'd been thinking, "I've handled this badly.  I've got to do something, but forcing her down isn't it.  I don't know what to do."  I'd been feeling remorse, affection, regret, yearning for re-connection to the dog. 

The thoughts and feelings I'd had during that event were exactly those that I shared with "my friend" in the dream. Jung was right:  My heart is telling me to pull back and not to confuse Mia with my mixed signals.  I surely don't want her to associate other dogs with my anger, or to think of my hands as instruments of pain.

This seems to be clear evidence that Jung was on to something real.  Where is he in discourse today? 

Psychology was as present in the first decades of my life as weather -- in cartoons, sitcoms, suspense movies, art, magazine racks, and speculative talk among adolescents (when I was one) -- so it's astonishing to me how Freud, Jung, and dream analysis have vanished from conversation.  The last time I heard anyone take any of that seriously was pre-Prozac, around 1990, Jung was ascendant, and Joseph Campbell had a bestselling book about world mythology and archetypes in our dreams and lives. 

At about that same time, The University of the South was developing Education for Ministry, an undergraduate theological course studied through local parishes.  A central feature of this program is a process of "Theological Reflection," by which participants analyze a real-life event for its concomitant thoughts and feelings.  After everyone recalls events in their lives when they shared the same thoughts and feelings, all use their imaginations to concoct a metaphor for those thoughts and feelings.

We are, in effect, inventing a dream that expresses the reality in the language of the unconcious.

The next step in the process is to cast about in culture and Scripture for another story or image that relates.

There you have Jung in a nutshell:   Our faith stories and our ancient myths speak to us universally as dreams speak to us individually.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Homeboys' Blessings

Jesuit father Greg Boyle was interviewed by Krista Tippett for her radio show "On Being."  He once tried to make peace through shuttle diplomacy among LA's street gangs, but he gave up on that: "There is no conflict," he says, "only violence." 

Instead, he has focused on getting members of different gangs to work side by side on other projects.  He tells of blessing one, adding, "While I love you, you can sometimes be a pain in the butt."  The boy-man replied, "The feeling's mutual."

His main insight seems to have been that all of these boys and "homegirls" are fleeing from something, and he offers something positive to want.  He tells of a boy -- now a man on the other side of drug addiction and crime -- whose mother told him at age six to kill himself and save her the pain of raising him.  She beat him, and he wore three tee shirts into adulthood, to cover up the wounds.  "But now I love my wounds," he says. "How else can I help others with their wounds if I don't love mine?"

Is he afraid of death? He quotes the Dali Lama:  "Death?  It's just a change of clothing."

He quoted Ruskin, that our main calling in life is to "delight in each other."  When Krista Tippett asked him about why he chose the epigram for the book, he confessed,"Oh no, it's my Krista Tippett nightmare coming true.  I don't know why I chose it.  Now I'm revealed as totally shallow." But the poet observes how all of us wish to be told "I love you," and asks why we can't be the one who tells thaqt to others.

So, from a hard-hitting, mean streets area of the world, there's a call from the warm and fuzzy side.

Here's a link to his website: