Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nationally Known Environmentalist to Speak at Gallery

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Arriving after deadline for this week's CP was word that National Wildlife Federation  president and CEO Larry Schweiger will be in town Saturday for a talk and book-signing.

Schweiger is a Pittsburgh-area native who now heads one of the country's largest and prominent conservation groups. His new book, Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth, explains the problem of climate change, the threat it poses to nature and to us, and what we can do about it.

The free event coincides with an opening reception for Endangered, a new exhibit of thematically appropriate work by local artists Laura Jean McLaughlin, Christian Kuharik and Carole Stremple

The events take place from 5-8 p.m. Sat., March 3, at the gallery, located at 3583 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

RSVP as soon as possible to 703-438-6231 or heffernanc@nwf.org.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Detroit Dealers at the Distinctively Dutch Festival

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 3:15 PM

The Cultural Trust's big three-month showcase of contemporary art and performance from Holland continued with experimental theater troupe Wunderbaum's take on the differences between Americans and the Dutch. Last night's world premiere at the Trust's Arts Education Center had its moments, but still felt rather like a work-in-progress.

The premise involved a business trip to Detroit taken 50 years ago by Wunderbaum actor/writer Walter Bart's grandfather, who worked for a European GM affiliate. In the engaging short documentary-style film that opened the evening, we're told that part of Grandfather's time in Detroit was spent making a love child with a black woman ... whose granddaughter Bart and theatrical accomplice Maartje Remmers proceed to track down.

I say "documentary-style" because Bart admittedly enjoys blurring the line between fact and fiction. Regardless, whether Detroit singer and performance poet Rosemarie Wilson (pictured here with Bart) is really Bart's cousin is less important than the fact that Detroit Dealers plays out their relationship mainly as a debate between American car culture and Dutch bike culture.

In the evening's live portion, this is first done, rather disarmingly, with an unlikely rap battle between Bart and Wilson. No surprise that the American evinced a better flow — but this naked and theatrically risky ploy paid off, especially after Wilson got the stage to herself to solo with some salty lyrics touching on the sexual possiblities of automobile travel. (Inarguably, they are more varied than those available to cyclists.)

The loosely structured show also included three interludes featuring the statuesque blonde Remmers portraying three different versions of the automobile.

The most successful was the first, a pin-up-girl come-on circa 1962, playing off the power, freedom and sexiness cars promised.

The second incarnation was Remmer's emodiment of the present-day car, gloomily apologizing for the enviromental and social mess it's made of the world. There was an insight or two, like how machines promising limitless mobility trap us inside them during traffic jams, but the tone was off: While Americans don't love cars the same way they used to, we do feel entitled to them, and few of us are actually apologetic about how ruinous that privilege is. This segment might have been funnier and more incisive if the car were, say, a swaggering character whose bragadoccio gave him away.

In the third car sequence, Remmers donned a futuristic coverall to minimalistically tout the anticipated triumph of the electric car. Like a baffling little hop-and-skip movement sequence Bart executed elsewhere in the show, the electric-car scene was everything you hope performance art won't be: repetitive, self-indulgent and unenlightening. (It reminded me of similar, apparently unironic bits in Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's stage show at the Carnegie last year, leaden clunkers weighing down an otherwise charming evening.)

Detroit Dealers was bolstered by its slick lighting design and an amazing two-man band, drummer Jens Bouttery and saxophonist/guitarist Andrew Claes. The concluding scene, imagining the first meeting between Bart's grandfather and his Detroit lover, was affecting.

Unfortunately, in terms of exploring two cultures, Detroit Dealers seldom got beyond the superficial — cars vs. bikes. There's something besides higher petrol prices that keep an affluent society like the Netherlands from being completely autocentric, and I was hoping to hear a little more about that last night.

Detroit Dealers has two more performances, at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, at 805/807 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"The Gammage Project" Talkback with Cyril Wecht

Posted By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Larry John Meyers as Cyril Wecht in The Gammage Project.
  • Larry John Meyers as Cyril Wecht in The Gammage Project.

Sometimes when there are talkbacks after live dance or theater performances, the audience doesn't seem to know what to ask, or falls back on old standbys ("What inspired you?").

No such trouble with Pitt Repertory Theatre and Pittsburgh Playwright's world-premiere docudrama about the infamous 1995 death of black businessman Jonny Gammage at the hands of five white suburban-Pittsburgh police officers. There's plenty to discuss, especially when the guest talker is Cyril Wecht, the famously loquacious forensic pathologist and former county coroner who is among the characters depicted in Attilio "Buck" Favorini's play (which has a three-day run at Downtown's August Wilson Center coming up, March 2-4).

As CP's Ted Hoover noted in his review, the production has its rough aspects. But The Gammage Project is nonetheless a powerful anatomy of the miscarriage of justice that included both Gammage's death and the judicial proceedings that followed ... in which the violent demise of a lone unarmed man at a routine traffic stop produced no criminal convictions.

Each of the show's nine performances thus far, at Pitt's Heymann Theater, has been followed by a talkback with someone portrayed in the play. The Feb. 18 show I saw was Wecht's second go-round, and he addressed a few of the more egregious lapses of justice the play highlights.

A lawyer himself, Wecht had also worked at one time or another with all the lawyers the play depicts, whether prosecution or defense. And there can't be too many people who know forensic pathology better. As Wecht noted on Feb. 18, he had been deposed for the following Monday on a West Virginia case of a  police shooting of a black man. (He says he was booked to discuss the case on Geraldo, as well.)

Aside from racism, the play makes clear that the chief impediment to justice for Gammage was the fact that when police officers are charged with crimes, the prosecutors come from the Allegheny County District Attorney's office. That's the same office that must work year-round with law-enforcement officers — a monster conflict of interest.

At the talkback, Wecht said the cases of cops accused of crimes should instead be prosecuted by the state attorney general.

From that conflict of interest, meanwhile, every other problem with the Gammage case seemed to flow. For instance, two of the five cops involved in the traffic stop where Gammage died were never charged with crimes. They were widely seen to have been granted immunity in exchange for testimony implicating the other officers — a move Wecht called "inexplicable."

And there's more. At the coroner's inquest, Keith Henderson, the Whitehall officer whom prosecutors considered their star witness, had said incriminating things about the behavior of other officeers. At the criminal trials, however, he changed his story — and there was no sworn statement from him to consult. Wecht called prosecutors' failure to obtain such a statement "absolutely incredible."

Wecht also asked why prosecutors never made the seemingly obvious move of objecting to two of the juries being drawn from lily-white Chester and Lackawanna counties.

Meanwhile, Wecht was quizzed by an audience member about a key scene in the play involving him (as played by the splendid Larry John Meyers).

The scene (drawn like much of the play from the public record) finds Wecht as a witness for the prosecution. Under repeated questioning by an officer's defense attorney, Wecht testifies that he is unable to say, based on the forensic evidence, which officer did what in the traffic stop, and thus who was ultimately responsible for Gammage's death. The judge declared a mistrial, saying that Wecht's statement would irreparably prejudice the jury.

The head prosecutor, Anthony Krastek, said that he didn't object on the ground of badgering the witness because he thought Wecht was holding his own. Wecht says today that while he wishes Krastek would have objected, he regrets the statement.

"I shouldn't have given that answer," he said last Friday. "I got pissed off." But, he added, he's still not sure the statement amounted to the need for a mistrial.

There are three more chances to see The Gammage Project. The show is restaged next weekend, March 2-4, at the August Wilson Center. Tickets are $15-20.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Call for Film Scripts Generates Surprises

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM

A local screenwriting group headed by theatrical director, writer and actor Bob Scott was curious to find out just how many talented writers we have in the Burgh. "Hollywood's best-kept secret" has been out for a while: Our city's varied topography, talent pool and appealing tax credits continue to attract filmmakers. In the past two years we've hosted features like Unstoppable, Won't Back Down and The Dark Night.

Filmmakers may come and go. But Pittsburgh stays. So what about our own? Is the film boom influencing us?

Curious and eager to bring attention to our talent, Scott and the Carnegie Screenwriters (CSW) asked the public to submit screenplays, with one condition: The work must have either advanced to the final rounds of a nationally recognized screenwriting competition or been optioned by a production company.

Once again, Pittsburgh surprised us — and not with Terrible Towel lingerie.

The group received 26 feature-length scripts.

"We weren't sure what to expect," says Scott. "Some members of our group have scripts that have been optioned or have won or placed well in contests. We didn't know how many other area writers might be out there who qualified.  I was hoping for a dozen. We received more than twice that."

And what's inspiring all this work?

 "We received a lot of romantic comedies ... surprisingly, more from male writers than female," Bob says. In Thirty, for example, Ben Castiac is dangerously close to his next birthday. After reuniting with his old girlfriend Kate, he tries to win her back before turning 30.

"Other than that we had a nice mix of sci-fi, thrillers, dramas and historical fiction," Scott adds.

In what CSW calls "a different kind of environmental disaster movie,"  The Whiskey Mower tells the story of a man trying to develop the first hydrogen-powered lawnmower who instead creates one that manufactures whiskey, becoming wildly successful for all the wrong reasons. 

CSW is now working to get these scripts in front of industry players. Scott says that several film and TV producers have already expressed an interest in reviewing the list.

However, Scott, the CSW and the screenwriters know that matching each screenplay with the right agent or producer won't be easy.

As for the 26 writers who submitted work, Scott says: "Now it's just a matter of waiting to hear from someone. After that, it's between the writer and the interested party. You have to be persistent and have a very thick skin. All artists face rejection.  It can never be taken personally and we learn what we can from rejection notices, critiques and script coverage."

Scott's advice for other aspiring screenwriter: "Learn about script structure, formatting, plot, creating characters, dialogue," he says. "Take classes. Read the books. Start with Syd Field's book Screenplay. It covers all of the basics. Buy a copy of The Screenwriter's Bible, by David Trottier. Read magazines such as Script and Creative Screenwriting. Read anything by William Goldman. Look for the stories inside you that are clamoring to be told. Write, then rewrite. Just don't stop writing."

Bob Scott can be reached at rhscott69@aol.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Public Announces New Season

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2012 at 4:42 PM

Artistic director Ted Pappas is calling the Pittsburgh Public Theater's next season "Made in America," with a focus on homegrown work about domestic themes. Of special note are three newer plays, two of them contemporary-set.

Perhaps chief among these is playwright Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which won the 2011 Pulitzer for drama. Provocatively, it looks at the same house in a Chicago neighborhood in two different time periods: in 1959, with a black family that's the first to break the color line, and in 2009, as a white family prepares to help gentrify the now-black neighborhood. The show opens in April 2013.

Also notable is another take on social class: David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, which also hit Broadway in 2011. The latest from the Rabbit Hole playwright concerns a low-income single mother reconnecting with the now-wealthy doctor whom she grew up poor with in Boston. The show opens this November, and will be directed by City Theatre's Tracy Brigden.

And race will sound a keynote in Thurgood, playwright George Stevens, Jr.'s acclaimed 2006 one-man show about Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights lawyer who became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court. On Broadway, the role was played by Laurence Fishburne; the Public's production opens in March 2013.

The schedule also includes a couple chestnuts — Garson Kanin's classic comedy Born Yesterday (September) and 1776, the musical with characters named Adams, Jefferson and Franklin (January 2013). The Public's season-closer is TBD.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Departed Actor Charges Exploitation in Gammage Play

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 1:20 PM

Playwright Attilio Favorini intended the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre production of The Gammage Project to address racial injustice in Pittsburgh by dramatizing a single wrenching episode from recent history.

But a prominent local actor who quit the show a week before it opened claims that the play merely exploits the story of Jonny Gammage, the black motorist killed in 1995 during a routine traffic stop involving five suburban-Pittsburgh police officers.

Wali Jamal says he quit the production because the play fails to tell Gammage's story in an edifying way, and because Favorini, who is white, is not the appropriate person to tell it.

"It's not [Favorini's] place to present these things," Jamal tells City Paper. He says he believes the play could incite further police hostility toward African Americans: "I've had my face slammed into a car before, by a cop who was probably having a bad day."

Jamal first made his feelings clear in a lengthy Feb. 13 Facebook post, where he wrote, "To me it was this elderly white man [Favorini] telling black jokes, to black people, USING A BLACK MAN TO DO IT, and EXPLOITING THIS YOUNG BLACK MAN'S [Gammage's] TRAGIC DEATH TO SELL TICKETS to a show strictly designed to PISS PEOPLE OFF."

Reached Monday by phone, Favorini declined to comment on Jamal's departure from the show. But he expressed surprise at the reasons the actor gave for quitting.

Favorini says he and Jamal "never discussed" any objections to the script (though Favorini does recall explaining the purpose of one monologue Jamal says he objected to).

"Any indication I had from [Jamal] was that he was extremely enthusiastic about playing the role," says Favorini, a veteran playwright and head of Pitt's graduate theater program.

As to whether he, as a white man, is the appropriate person to write about Gammage, Favorini argues, "The story is not just a black story. The story is a story of justice and injustice," racial tension and, in the community outcry over Gammage, racial solidarity.

Continue reading »

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Marine, Young Iraqi Refugee continue War Dialogues Project

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 2:05 PM


War makes it all look so simple, as if we could divide civilizations and countries into good and bad, prey and predator. But if these assumptions save us time and effort, they also make us blind. 

As part of the ongoing Windows and Mirrors exhibition, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, the War Dialogues Project brings together veterans and refugees from the same wars, each using storytelling to explore the complexities of the other's experience.

For two Pittsburgh residents, U.S. Iraq veteran Joyce Wagner and high school student and Iraqi refugee Mina Al Doori, opening up proved to be one of the project's greatest challenges.

"I felt much more accountable for my words," Wagner said. "At the beginning, I would feel anxious even days before we were supposed to meet. The first time, we kind of all felt the tension in the room." 

The exhibit opened Jan. 27, at Downtown's 937 Liberty gallery, and culminates this weekend. At 3 p.m. Sat., Feb. 11, The AFSC's Peter Lems discusses the impact of the troop withdrawal from Iraq. The exhibit closes on Sunday.

Despite the emotional cost of reliving her memories of the war,  Wagner felt hopeful that she and Mina were willing to meet. "What made the exchange even more successful is that there were relationships of trusts to begin with," she says. "People that we both trusted brought us together." AFSC program director Scilla Wahrhaftig had worked previously with Wagner. Marcy Luek, a friend of Mina and her family, is on the Windows and Mirrors Committee.

Wagner served as a Marine from  2002-2008, and was among of the first women Marines to serve at Camp Korean Village, in Western Iraq, in 2004. She left the military as a corporal. The board chair for Iraq Veterans Against the War lives with her son Patrick, in Stanton Heights. 

Mina, attends Pittsburgh Brashear High School and lives with her family in Crafton.

As the project progressed, the two became more comfortable, and communication much more effective. They could see more clearly the individual in each other, not just a cause or product of war. At one point Wagner remembers Mina telling her: "What we have in common is that we are both survivors."

The exhibit consists of two tall panels hinged together, covered in drawings and painted scenes of Iraq during the war. At their base are pieces of brick, lumber, Joyce's Marine Corps cover, some feathers, an Iraqi flag and, hung right over it, an oil lamp from Iraq. At night, the light flickers like flames, giving the artwork a mysterious and almost mournful feel.

Once we realize we are in this together — we all lose to the war — the healing process finally begins.

"We don't want to just talk about war and sadness," says Mina. "We want to talk about hope and whether something can happen to bring change. We want to start appreciating and enjoying each others' cultures."

Ultimately, we must identify and eliminate the barriers we have constructed between others and ourselves. Finally, Mina reminds us one of the main lessons of her own process: to always forgive, but never forget or stop trying to understand.

"I learned that many Americans actually share my same feelings about the war and so do people from other countries as well. Most of the people don't want violence, they want peace and a safe life."

Both artists plan to facilitate the same project/process for another group of veterans and refugees, in hopes of mounting  another show. Wagner is also currently working on a video exhibit for the National Veterans Art Museum, in Chicago.

937 Liberty is open today and tomorrow from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Author and Philanthropist Le Ly Hayslip at Chatham

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 at 4:20 PM

Tomorrow, Chatham University hosts a discussion by author, humanitarian and activist Le Ly Hayslip, author of the 1989 memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. The book, which Oliver Stone adapted into the 1993 film Heaven & Earth, offers a unique perspective on the Vietnam War, that of a peasant woman.

The free event will be held at 6:30 p.m. in Sanger Lecture Hall, located in Chatham University's Shadyside campus.

The event will open with a short documentary on Hayslip's life. A discussion follows, focusing on the author's non-profit work. 

Le Ly Hayslip founded two charitable organizations: East Meets West Foundation and Global Village Foundation. They offer humanitarian and emergency support to the disadvantaged in Vietnam and other Asian nations.

Hayslip was born in 1949, in central Vietnam. During what the Vietnamese called "The American War," Hayslip and her friends worked as scouts for the Vietcong. She was eventually found out by the South Vietnamese, who captured, arrested and tortured her. They finally released her, but by then she had come under the suspicion of the Vietcong. At 14, two soldiers took her to the forest, threatened to kill her, and then raped her.

She moved to the U.S. in 1970, after marrying an American civilian contractor.

In When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Lely Hayslip tells a side of the story seldom heard from journalists or historians. Her childhood memories are forever enveloped in the shadow of war. Her memoir offers the point of view of someone brought up in a village by the fault line between the north and south of Vietnam, with a history written by the constant tension between inconsistent allegiances.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rabih Mroué's "The Pixelated Revolution" at The Warhol

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 3:00 PM

Rabih Mroué performs "Looking for a Missing Employee"
  • Rabih Mroué performs "Looking for a Missing Employee"

Last Friday, the Lebanese performance artist wrapped his first U.S. tour, performing this brand-new piece co-commissioned by The Warhol. (It was his second show at the museum, where the night before he'd performed "Looking for a Missing Employee.")

"Pixelated Revolution" is a sort of illustrated lecture about the use of cell-phone imagery by Syrian protesters. Mroué noted that because Syria lacks journalists per se, online cell-phone videos are about the only option, aside from state-run media, we have for learning what's going in there, especially during these recent months of anti-government protests.

He smartly reduced the key differences between official and unofficial documentation to a single attribute: Official video comes from cameras mounted on tripods, which calmly scan crowds and give the impression that all is under control. By contrast, the cell-phone videos are fragmentary and jumpy — an analog for, and unavoidable artifact of, the fact that street protesters are besieged by armed soldiers.

Syrian protesters, that is, actually can't shoot with tripods. Unlike Egyptian activists, whose protests have centered on Tahrir Square and who shoot their own video with tripods, the Syrians are constantly on the run.

(Interestingly, the near-capacity crowd in the Warhol theater included several of the Egyptian artists in the "Sites of Passage" exhibit at the Mattress Factory, who are in town for a couple weeks.)

And the video Mroué showed was harrowing. The talk's centerpiece was a video he had dubbed "Double Shooting." The 83-second clip, shot from a balcony, concludes shortly after the cameraman spots an army sniper standing on a nearby balcony. Gunshots are heard and the screen goes dark, though the fate of the cameraman is unknown.

Why didn't the cameraman run? Mroué speculates that he was lulled by the false security that many camerapeople feel — the sense that they do not subsist in the same "reality" as does whatever danger they're documenting.

Mroué's talk proceeded on his explicit assumption that the phone-camera eye equals the cameraman's eye equals the cameraman himself — that it's an "optical prosthetic," so that when we watch the video we're experiencing exactly what he did.

But Mroué believes that though such footage is necessary and valuable, "images alone are not enough to achieve any victory" — especially when the other side has all the guns.

In the question-and-answer session following "Pixelated Revolution," Mroué added that he believes that the proper role of the contemporary artist is not to make more images, of which there are already plenty. Rather, he said, "For me, it's more important and more useful to make images that are already imposing themselves on our daily lives and are keeping us from thinking, and use them as material to [make us] think."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Skeeball League Comes to Town

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Remember skeeball at Chuck E Cheese? The yellow tickets flowing out of the machine by the dozen; running to the prize counter with a cardboard bouquet above your head like it's the terrible towel in 2005. Finally, the jumbo slinky you always wanted. 

Happiness came easy back then. 

Lucky for you, skeeball is back as the only sport that allows you to relive your childhood — beer in hand. The game is the same, played by rolling a ball up a four-foot ramp into holes that allot anywhere from zero to 100 points. But now, tickets are redeemable for beer at the hosting bar, or season tickets to the kind of sport where players sweat.

On Thursday, the fledgling Pittsburgh Skeeball League holds a free introductory tournament at Cupka's Cafe II, on the South Side, with a $100 cash prize. Sign-ups for this introductory event start at 7 p.m.; the tournament starts at 8 p.m. It will be free games all night before and after the tournament.

Brandon Harris, skeeball "Master Guru" and owner of Charlotte, N.C.-based Skeenation — which calls itself "America's Premier Skeeball League" — insists that the beauty of this sport is "you do not have to be athletic to excel. There are plenty of people that have never been athletic enough to play football, basketball, soccer, etc, that are great at skeeball."

Skeenation-sponsored competitive leagues are popping up in cities across the nation. Pittsburgh's is slated to launch in the spring.

"It's a nostalgic game most all of us remember playing as a kid," Harris says. "Except now it's a lot more fun. Mix in a few adult beverages, compete against your friends, and have all your scores calculated into stats and it becomes really addicting."

And for those who give in to the fever, there is always the Super Roll. Last year, the national tournament was held in Atlanta. This year, it's Chicago. The team that wins the 2012 Super Roll will be awarded $3,000, and the person who wins the National High Roller Tournament goes home with $1,000.

Finally, whether you're looking to commit seriously or just have a good time, don't forget what Harris calls "the beauty of the 40":

"Aim for the 40. Too many people see the 100 holes and want to go for the glory. That is a quick way to getting a horrible score. The beauty of the 40 is if you roll your ball short, it hits the 30 pocket, if you roll a little long it goes in the 50, if you roll it a little to the left or right, in the 20."

Cupka's 2 is at 2314 E. Carson St., on the South Side. 


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