Archive for the ‘Philosophy and Ideas’ Category

LESSONS FROM OUR OWN HISTORY

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

by Barry Jagoda

Reunions to celebrate the “good old days” are privileges of growing older. Three such emotional, memorable events have been experienced in April, 2017.

Joining 200 high school friends and acquaintances brought back warm memories of growing up in the suburbs of Houston 50 years ago.

Then, after 40 years, getting back with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—in Atlanta and in Plains—reminded one of the power of the ideas, the moderation and the passion that enabled the election of the 39th President of the United States in 1976.

And a 50th reunion of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University marked a passage back to 1966-1967 underscoring what had helped turn a young Texan into a reporter—a professional journalist–with commitments to keeping an eye on government.

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As the poet John Dunne wrote, “Make new friends, but keep the old—for these are silver and those are gold.” Friendships and bonds of attachment characterize these reunion meetings. As one participant, viewing a photograph from our adolescence, wrote, “We could not possibly have been that young but now it is impossible that we are that old.”

As one survives into an eighth decade a wise friend from earlier times now writes, “Health is Everything,” appreciated less if one currently suffers from no debilitating illness.   And, the half-joking admonition from another half-century long pal, “If you do get sick make sure it is something they can fix,” becomes more real as one ages into the 70s and beyond.

The luckiest among us may be those who still have meaningful family connections—children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. A very few still have a living parent. At some time in the growing up process we leave childhood homes, with their rules and their unconditional love. We develop our own set of values and new aspirations. And now, looking back over the decades, pictures of “what formed us” become clearer.

Neuroscientists and others puzzle over the competing claims of nurture and nature—our genetic inheritance and our lived life experiences. But in the lingering last years of life one sees overlap, the near impossibility of sorting out just what came along with our embryos versus what we have learned over the ages. Curiously, though, as a wise friend jokes, “At age 30 I thought I knew all the answers but now, at 70, I realize how very little I know.” This charming comment is not necessarily true: A wonderful discovery of older age is to find new old mistakes to correct, new life-lessons that can still be gained.

A goal of life, as expressed by psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, is to become “self-actualized,” to be dependent on one’s inner life for meaning, perhaps the opposite of David Riesman’s “other-directed” personality. But none can deny the deep benefits of the power of “significant others,” who have come into our lives and—with luck—are still there, in real life or influencing us from the grave.

It is perhaps at night as one tumbles off to sleep that there is best the realization of how fortunate one might be to have another with whom one might share the slings and arrows—as well as the ice cream—of being human. But life lessons are still there to be had: An art gallery curator’s recent comment helps put this into perspective with a summing up of culture that transcends, yet also populates: Asked the meaning of art, the gallery expert explains, “Art fills the soul.” And, “Where is the soul?,” asks the skeptical journalist. “The soul is where love and joy reside,” says the wise professional.

Another approach to the soul is often associated with teachings from the various religions. Listen to the Ten Commandments or understand the urgency of the teachings of the Islamic Prophet. Knowing that such creation stories are all about us, hard to miss, one can fall back, perhaps, on the Golden Rule, dealing with others as one would hope to be treated.

For a secular individual—having no belief in a deity—there is the additional challenge of sorting through ideas inherited from the centuries to find one’s own values, ethics, moral principles. And herein is a great virtue of being a mere human being. It is said that we each have primitive brains, derived intellectually from the Darwinian tradition. Our rational faculties are even taken over by these earlier constructs which try to focus us. As this understanding may be true, the human challenge is shown to be even more difficult.

Finding decency is a quest not to be undervalued. But for an older human the chance for a second look—a glance back—makes a reunion another chance to mull over what has come before. One might revel in the good fortunes but not forget what may have gone wrong. Perhaps too late for much change but at least having history’s lessons for intellectual satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANOTHER SEASON IN LA JOLLA BRINGS SOULFUL SUMMERFEST

Friday, August 12th, 2016

By Barry Jagoda

         The great news this August in La Jolla, the famous neighborhood of San Diego, California, is that SummerFest has returned, now for it’s 30th Anniversary year of producing some of the globe’s very best chamber music.

COVER

The Festival features world class artists presenting to appreciative audiences of regular concert goers (and regular big time donors). SummerFest also includes a significant program of free workshops and lectures as well as extremely helpful “prelude” events for ticket holders.

What a pleasure, for example, to be a ticket-holder on the evening of August 10, for a program that began with a scintillating prelude lecture (on Beethoven and the “sonata form”) from University of California professor Steven Cassedy. The evening concluded with a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Opus 127, by the incomparable Danish String Quartet.

DANISH

After a standing ovation from the good-sized audience, the Quartet, pictured above, played an encore, one of their favorites, the Danish folk tune, Sonderho (“Bridal Trilogy”), which occasioned another standing ovation.

The evening’s full program was entitled “Richard, Robert and Ludwig,” referring to concertizing of Richard Strauss and Robert Schuman compositions, as well as to the “Ludwig,” string quartet referenced above.

Earlier on this same pleasant August evening (the weather is almost always nice at the San Diego coast) patrons were invited to pay for a “pre-concert” dinner at one of San Diego’s newest and best restaurants, the Sicilian-themed Catania. Also on this same Festival day, La Jolla music lovers (and some visiting tourists) were treated to a free “Coaching Workshop,” where top musicians mentored the work of some of their younger brethren–performers with brilliant potential.

An eager SummerFest participant would have to be asleep by 11pm Wednesday to wake for Thursday, August 11, festival events such as another coaching workshop and a brilliant “Encounter,” where scholar Nuvi Mehta presented a talk entitled, “Vienna 1900: How the Past Made the Future.” This talk was designed as background for the next few concerts, one titled “Viennese Giants,” with compositions from Mozart and other brilliant Austrian composers.

Mehta, a respected musical and historical lecturer, deeply engaged his audience with perspectives on Vienna at the time, noting a history of anti-Semitism and general anti-immigrant bias. His talk explained how private intellectual opposition to the ruling Hapsburg imperial dynasty ironically helped develop a culture for the new music of the 20th Century.  Saying “words are seeds,” and seeing parallels with our own times, the speaker pointed out that radical political demagogues also arose in Austria and Germanic Europe as part of the revolt against perceived unfairness.

After mid-August, SummerFest concert-goers will have another ten performances from which to choose, along with fifteen free workshops and encounters. For a full listing of the Festival schedule see www.ljms.org, the Internet home of La Jolla Music Society, which is the producing organization for the entire summer’s cultural cornucopia.

Patrons who wanted to support the Festival, financially, were invited to an August 13th “Anniversary Gala dinner,” followed by an intimate concert of works by Bartok, Wolf and Dvorak. Performers at the Gala Concert were to include, Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin, the Rice University music professor who is Musical Director of the Festival and always in demand as a beloved violinist.

This writer also looks forward to “An Evening with Paquito D’Rivera,” the soulful and brilliant clarinetist.

PAQUITO

SummerFest’s August 17 program is sub-titled “Jazz Meets the Classics,” featuring an amalgam of classical chamber music players and jazz, led by Paquito D’Rivera, pictured above.

Friday (Aug. 19) and Saturday (Aug. 20) brings a two-evening focus on cello suites from J.S. Bach, starring Mischa Maisky, the Russian cello genius who studied under both Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky. Maisky will perform the much loved “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,” of Bach. These two evenings cannot be missed by Bach lovers.

August 21 brings “Great Quintets,” and the following Tuesday (August 23) will star the wonderful “Verona Quartet,” in “Virtuoso Winds,” also with acclaimed pianist Shai Wosner.

Pianist Shai Wosner has attracted international recognition for his exceptional artistry.

Pianist Shai Wosner has attracted international recognition for his exceptional artistry.

SummerFest continues on Aug. 24 with music from Liszt, Tchaikovsky and the world premier of Pianist Mar-Andre Hamelin performing (along with cellist Hai-Ye Ni) his own “Four Perspectives.”

The Festival’s grand finale stars genius James Conlon, Musical Director of the Los Angeles Opera, conducting Schubert, Prokofev and Mozart. This compelling event also stars Gil Shaham, who Time magazine called, “the outstanding American violinist of his generation.”

Except for the Gala all these concerts take place in the acoustically splendid auditorium of La Jolla’s San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.

One is advised to check the festival web site for locations of open and free Encounters, Coaching Sessions and Rehearsals, which can be found at locations of community partners, the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library and at La Jolla’s public library.

SummerFest is constructing a new home for itself, along with what is expected to be an outstanding venue for this and other La Jolla Music Society events. The facility is expected to be ready for SummerFest in 2018.

 

 

MODERATION IN PURSUIT OF VIRTUE IS NO VICE

Monday, April 4th, 2016

By Barry Jagoda

As an open society the United States is mixed economically, culturally, socially and with regard to belief. With no fixed agreement on the very greatest issues of human exchange it becomes crucial for government, and for a responsible public, to be moderate so no particular segment of society feels entirely excluded from the process.

Generally American politics reflects this mixture of values but in contested elections, on the left and on the right, one can see deviation, often leading to subordination of a party or candidate who occupies one extreme or another. These extremes show up in other elements of our life but political conflict gets more attention and we are currently undergoing a historic polarization. These gulfs can be seen throughout our culture.

But in 2016, particularly in the Republican presidential nominating process, all of the candidates—17 in total at one time—have run to the right of center. And, as the process winds down, the leading two candidates are far to the right or leaning in that direction. The Democrats have seemed more moderate but from the perspective of the GOP, their more liberal opponents must seem just as deviant.

Republican candidates for public office have tended to find corners of darkness for their anti-government message while Democrats have bounced from calls for a remaking of political society to underscoring the need for more balance.

Passion is a great driver in public life but it can easily cause proponents of one perspective to alienate their fellow citizens. It was this very danger that gave the lie to the famous comment from a right-of-center Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, when he said, “Extremism in pursuit of virtue is no vice.” But whose “virtue,” what “extremism” and what sort of “vice?”

Questions such as these, with a variety of answers depending on initial assumptions, lead to bad public policy. The answers—for a healthy society—require moderation.

This is why the economy works best when government is joined with private sector entities to accomplish projects when possible. Mixing funding from public sources—such as for artists, scientists, public broadcasting—with creative forces from the private economy becomes crucial for start-up projects. And with Constitutional requirements for freedom of religion the main role of the public sector is to shield these organizations from restrictions.

Perhaps in no other system does the collective power of government—at local, state and federal levels—come to play a supporting role providing a social safety net. Mixing good jobs with poverty reduction, and underpinning minimum housing, food and clothing, provides a huge role for government but as a supplement to the disorganized private work forces.

Ironically it is with institutions of religion that one can best see how a mixed system works. Because of the very great diversity in religious belief—and because there must be an open platform for each of these traditions—here the wider public sector simply plays an enabling role. In other cultures, where the religion is proscribed and imposed, clashes of values are much more likely. The American system, however, allows for a variety of belief and even protects the 20 percent of citizens who profess no supernatural values.

But American history, through 250 years has seen perpetual conflict between those who had acquired wealth or substantial economic assets and others who have fought for a larger share for those outside the financial circle of influence. With the “establishment” in perpetual fights with the underclasses, with leaders in the various religious sects on the defensive against those who question faith, and related arguments between the “haves” and “have nots,” society has been in turmoil for most of its modern history.

The story becomes quite murky when candidates for public office take on a populist tenor thereby fooling segments of the population who feel left out by government. This is a particular problem in primary voting for national office when candidates seem willing to say anything or do anything to attract their base of voters, often found in extreme pockets at the left or at the right.

It is for this reason that political scientists barely joke when they say “There are two positions in American politics: The moderate position and the wrong position!”

Barry Jagoda is a San Diego-based journalist and international consultant. He was an award-winning writer and producer at NBC News and CBS News, and a founding contributing editor of the highly regarded Texas Monthly magazine.

WHAT CAN JOURNALISM DO WHEN POWERFUL SOCIAL FIGURES LIE?

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

by Barry Jagoda

Three movies out this December capture among the most profound issues that can be faced in a free society: What happens when high public and private officials lie? How can objective journalism respond to leaders who feel comfortable with factual distortions?

The short answer is that assertions, from elected and appointed public and private leaders—as well from others in positions of power and responsibility—often must be reported. But in many, perhaps most, cases such statements must be verified. This is because leaders often intentionally, or through mistake or ignorance, distort the truth.

Journalists have a responsibility to report the views of leaders but official, and often questionable, statements must be reviewed and vetted against facts.

An aphorism, about truthfulness, once sounded by Ronald Reagan, is relevant: As the late President put it about potential foreign leaders: Trust but Verify.

Dramatic attention is being drawn to these issues by movies out this season: The films are “Truth,” about CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather’s efforts to expose favorable military treatment given to George W. Bush; “Spotlight,” the true story about the courageous investigation by the Boston Globe,” exposing the Cardinal and Catholic leadership in Boston for sheltering 90 pedophilia priests; and “Trumbo,” the spectacular film revealing and reminding of the damages caused to our people and country by the Red Scares of the 1950s.

The best of the three films, “Trumbo,” demonstrates the great difficulty of vetting statements by lying politicians, and what happens when free speech rights are destroyed by official demagoguery. This is the story of Hollywood creative artists whose left-wing political opinions were silenced by official Washington’s invocation of “Red fears.” These were false charges that the United States was in danger from internal enemies loyal to the Soviet Union. The crime of stifling opinion was made possible by vicious office-holders personified by Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy, a notorious liar, whose charges of contempt of Congress ended up in jail terms for ten Hollywood artists whose mistake was to express their opinions about American politics.

“Spotlight,” a wonderful movie, is the true story of how an investigative reporting team from the Boston Globe overcame huge cultural and local political odds to name 90 priests who had been found guilty of sexual molestation of parishioners. To get to the truth the Globe’s “Spotlight” reporting team had to take on the Catholic culture of Boston and years of official lies by the Cardinal and other church leaders. The best of our journalists learn they must often challenge authority, even at the risk of peril to their careers and their emotional balance. This film is a classic look at the process of “telling truth to power,” which had the result of pulling back years of despicable behavior by priests and their church bosses.

The most painful story from among the three movies is the true tale of what happened when CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather and his team of producers set out to show favoritism doled out to a young George W. Bush. The CBS team had learned that, Texas military national guard officials found a non-combatant role for the son of the then President George H.W. Bush. The CBS reporting came as the younger Bush was himself seeking re-election as U.S. President. The movie shows how the reporters were stymied by lies and cover-ups with the result that Rather, who had been the top reporter at CBS News, was fired from his job when errors were discovered in reporting procedures. In this case “Truth” was sacrificed to political power. The lying, and cover-up by young Bush—and family political allies–was left to stand.

Trying to hold powerful figures to a standard of truth and accuracy is particularly dangerous in an age when journalism organizations have come under financial pressures from a vastly changing media environment. With cable news channels adopting partisan political ideologies leaders often have an open microphone for their distortions. The rise of the Internet with unchecked digital outlets, particularly wide-open, often feckless “social media” expression, had exponentially increased opportunity for political and civic distortion.

A free and open society must have procedures for ensuring factual communication. Competing political and business entities can be helpful in creating a climate of honesty. These three film stories dramatically demonstrate that the front-line of defense for integrity in society often depends on an increasingly rare “fearlessness” from a free press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Federal Spending Can Cure U.S. Economic Woes

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Journal Opinion for October 25, 2015

By Barry Jagoda and Richard Cohen

Republican conservatives continue to fume over the probability that Congress will approve another increase in the nation’s debt limit by the deadline of Nov. 3. And the GOP candidates for President continue their focus on less government, all arguing for big cuts in federal spending. But this represents a complete misunderstanding of macroeconomics.

In all of modern history the most effective tool for repairing a national economy has been more targeted government spending. Central government spending is also the best way to reduce the national debt because current and future public investments will rapidly be paid back through the natural increase in tax revenues from a newly strong economy.

Many economists are attracted to the idea of increasing federal spending for worthwhile projects, especially when a nation’s economy is in a slump. The right kind of federal spending not only can pump needed fuel into the economy but will result in long-term benefits to society, such as new and improved roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.

The current national challenge is to get conservative political leaders to understand this counter-intuitive approach. Probably the best testimony that deficit spending works is that the economy is finally picking up—haltingly, but steadily. Reducing government spending now will short-circuit the recovery. President Obama’s just released budget does call for more federal stimulus but not enough.

The theoretical basis for this strengthening comes from the work of the British economist John Maynard Keynes whose focus is on “aggregate demand,” depending not only on the private sector but also on government to build up the economy. “Demand”can be controlled by federal spending when private enterprise lags.

According to Keynes, within a short time, public and private economic activity will reward a country many times over and will automatically increase tax collections and thereby rather quickly begin to reduce the federal debt.

Why is federal deficit spending seen as such a taboo? Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a leading Keynesian, says, “Fiscal fear mongering is a major industry inside the Beltway, especially among those looking for excuses to dismantle Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. People whose careers are heavily invested in the deficit-scold industry don’t want to let evidence undermine their scare tactics.”

In his first term President Obama, very much aware of the power of Keynesian theory, asked his economic team for a federal “stimulus” plan. His advisors argued among themselves and, with an eye out over what was thought to be concerns of the electorate, came up with federal spending that was later seen as about half of the amount necessary to get the economy rolling in a fundamental way. This mini-Keynesian contribution made a dent in the weak economy but not nearly enough was spent to reach the level of demand required. Now there is another chance.

The basic American economic problem is a lack of demand. American consumers and businesses aren’t spending enough, and efforts to get them to open their wallets have gone nowhere. The solution: The federal government needs to step in and spend. A lot. On debt relief for struggling homeowners; on infrastructure projects; on aid to states and localities; on safety-net programs. Call it “stimulus” if you like. Call it Keynesian economics. Whatever you call it, it worked in the late nineteen-thirties and forties, when the U.S. government started shelling out on the military in the build-up to World War II, bringing an abrupt end to years of economic misery and laying the foundation for decades of prosperity.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has been for “austerity” — throttle back on government spending, tackle the budget deficit now — as the way to get the economy back on track. Not only is this wrong, it’s making a bad situation even worse. Krugman writes: “Now is the time for the government to spend more, not less, until the private sector is ready to carry the economy forward again.”

Republicans fear government debt almost as though the overages were similar to going into household debt. Students in first year economics are taught that this is the “fallacy of composition,” mistaking what might be consequential for a home budget or even planning in business with the opportunities and issues for a national budget and management plan. Sometimes it seems that none of the conservatives in Congress found time for basic economic study, or they have forgotten the fundamental teaching. 2015-2016 is a very good time to test Keynes whose theories should get America further back on the right economic track.

Richard Cohen is a business executive and entrepreneur. Barry Jagoda is a San Diego-based journalist and international consultant.

At La Jolla SummerFest: The Passion of Dmitri Shostakovich

Monday, August 24th, 2015

by Barry Jagoda

SummerFest, La Jolla Music Society’s month of concerts, talks and coaching sessions more than amply rewards patrons. Now Music Director Cho-Liang (“Jimmy”) Lin has again outdone himself with a three-concert focus, August 21, 22 and 23, on the work of Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the world’s greatest composer since Mozart and Beethoven.

The extraordinary composer Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated at SummerFest, 2015

The extraordinary composer Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated at SummerFest, 2015

In addition to bringing some of the globe’s most talented musicians to perform some quite lovely, and some very meaningful, poignant, concerts, Jimmy Lin also employed retired UC Berkley music scholar Richard Taruskin, (“He is our greatest interpreter of Shostakovich,” Lin told us) for a series of lectures dealing mainly with the composer’s music, but which also helped patrons through the cauldron of misunderstanding caused by World War II, the Cold War and Soviet politics.

For example, soon after being elected head of Russia’s national organization of composers, Shostakovich was forced to join the Communist Party, which he did quite reluctantly. This was followed not too long after by a heart attack, though the composer recovered to continue writing and producing, some of his most dramatic music. As a result, for those in the West more interested in politics than in music, Shostakovich has been seen as a figure of knuckling under to the Soviet regime or as a great composer (and a piano virtuoso) who refused to play to dictator Josef Stalin’s tune. All of this, and more, under pins the life and music of this great genius composer.

The always engaging, creatively insightful, program annotator Eric Bromberger can be depended on to help novice and experienced music lovers through the work of Music Society’s yearlong and summer programs. In the case of Shostakovich, reinforcement from Professor Taruskin was also most helpful.  He delivered three lectures, as preludes to each of the concerts. He also presented an overview in an “Encounter” which engaged an audience that had come for a lectures on music but could not help but be transformed by a deep and fair-minded talk in  explication and appreciation of Shostakovich.

For some who had failed to pay proper attention to music classes in college or who had given up their violin lessons by age 12, SummerFest provides a second chance. For those who know their musical culture, or for those who are novices, standing ovations were the rule in the concerts in the auditorium at the local Museum of Contemporary Arts late this summer.

Leading off the program at “Shostakovich III, August 23rd, was the Borromeo String Quartet, with Nicholas Kitchen in the first violin chair and Yeesun Kim, cellist, performing the String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major. These two are among the greatest musicians in the world today and, along with their superb string-playing partners, showed why. They demonstrated how Shostakovich teased with atonal, disharmonic music, much disapproved by Soviet cultural leaders because it was not music that could be understood by the ordinary citizen.

Borromeo String Quartet:  L to R: Kristopher Tong, Nicholas Kitchen, Mai Motobuchi, Yeesun Kim

Borromeo String Quartet: L to R: Kristopher Tong, Nicholas Kitchen, Mai Motobuchi, Yeesun Kim

Many of us dislike this kind of 12-tone structure because we don’t understand it. But, according to Taruskin, Shostakovich used this atonal music as a brief tease and also as a way of expanding the reach of some his compositions. Shostakovich, himself, told an interviewer that “a composer can use this or that technique…as he sees fit.” In this Quartet, the atonal music makes a brief appearance thereby giving the composer wider latitude for what he wants to do as the piece progresses. Politically brilliant and musically sound!

A sonata for cello and piano was the second piece, played well by the Texas bred, Julliard graduate John Sharp, selected for the Chicago Symphony at age 27 and brilliantly by the famous pianist, Vladimir Feltsman.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cellist John Sharp

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cellist John Sharp

Renowned pianist Vladimir Feltsman

Renowned pianist Vladimir Feltsman

 

No one can fail to be deeply moved by the Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, written in 1944 and the festival’s final tribute to Shostakovich.   Twenty million Russians had died by then.   “The Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 was the greatest catastrophe ever to befall any nation, “ as Bromberger wrote.

The public Shostakovich reacted with his “Leningrad Symphony,” marches and songs filled with patriotism. But the Trio that closed out this magnificent SummerFest focus showed a different Shostakovich, deeply disturbed by the war.   And, when the Nazi armies retreated, the atrocities committed against Russian Jews, obviously brought forward another deeply anguished side of the composer. One of the movements, of the Trio, was inspired by accounts that the Nazis had forced Jews to dance on their graves before execution. You could almost hear fair whispers of “Tevye the Milkman” before the music turned sinister and grotesque in a brilliant and beautiful sort of way. The Soviet government, at first, banned the performance of the Trio but the composer’s deep pain and grief had already been turned into an unforgettable work of passion proving again how music can feed our souls with very deep meaning.

Muslim-American Culture, with Passion, Insight and Humor, At La Jolla Playhouse

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

by Barry Jagoda

Vision, courage and a willingness to create theater out of a central conflict of our time was required for La Jolla Playhouse to stage a drama focusing on a Muslim-American family and the contradictions this religion has created all over the world.

The February 19 world premier of an unforgettable play “The Who & The What,” by Ayad Akhtar, was a triumph not merely because the production was a “crowd pleaser.”  Playhouse opening night audiences are not used to deep and thoughtful theater—which this production truly is.  And there was enough humor and superficiality to draw loud and heartfelt applause throughout the evening.

But if one seeks depth on the topic of religion, particularly the Islamic faith, go see this play!  It is a wonderful exposition of Muslim culture, with references to a homeland in Pakistan but otherwise the story plays out here at home in America, with a healthy infusion of wit and wisdom underlying much seriousness. The play is contemporary and set in Atlanta.  It will be performed nightly at The La Jolla Playhouse until March 9th with two matinees each weekend.

The story is of a traditional, but transplanted, deep believer in the Prophet Mohammed, but now a taxi driver in Atlanta whose wife (“broken” by her husband) died of cancer, leaving the father of two daughters struggling with their faith but a father whose Muslim tenants are NEVER doubted.   Of course the girls have other thoughts about this.  The three are seen below:

An unlikely fourth player is the part-time Iman of a local mosque, an intellectual plumber when not engaged in his faith work.  Named Eli, he ends up marrying one of the girls—fights ensue, but a baby is born.  An American convert to Islam, the young clergyman has a modern view of religious requirements.  Iman Eli and his wife, Zarina, the brilliant older of the Muslim women–she has a Harvard graduate degree in literature and her life’s work is a novel with a very questioning perspective on the Prophet–are pictured below

Kudos particularly go to Artistic Director Christopher Ashley who signed up this project after just one dramatic reading.  In so doing he accepted the enormous challenge of bringing a serious play on the subject of Muslim culture (particularly in its American context) to a venue which has been more partial to mass cultural theater than to an extremely thoughtful, highly cerebral examination of what is perhaps the world’s most vexing issue.  Religion, and particularly the Islamic faith of more than 1.2 billion persons world-wide, get an examination in this case study of the girls, their various boyfriends—and husbands—and the dictatorial influence of the father.

 

Playwright Aktar’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for an earlier production, “Disgraced,” had not been announced prior to The Playhouse taking on this new story thus adding to the leap of faith by Ashley and his creative team.   They brought in Director Kimberly Senior (who had earlier worked with Aktar) and the four stars of the play:  Monika Jolly, Meera Kumbhani, Kai Lennox and Bernhard White.

To their lasting credit, the producers did not water down this project.  The many conflicts about The Prophet—particularly what the playwright calls “gender politics”–are present and the subject of many long, loud, passionate and very interesting arguments.

Amazingly, for all the bluster and anger in the family, there is a happy ending.  Dear Reader, you are invited, even encouraged, to go see for yourself.

 

Great Paul Robeson Passionately Portrayed by Daniel Beaty at La Jolla Playhouse

Monday, October 14th, 2013

For La Jolla Playhouse patrons who crave socially relevant drama a magnificent such work currently occupies the stage in the form of a biography of the great American black actor, singer and political activist, Paul Robeson.   The production, titled “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” stars another world-class great actor, Daniel Beaty, who, in a one-man performance, gives the audience an unforgettable and highly emotional experience, playing the parts of 40 persons and bringing to life at least 15 songs, including “Ole Man River,”  “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Battle of Jericho.”

 

Robeson, born in 1898, son of a run-away slave, was an All-American football player at Rutgers, a distinguished graduate of Columbia University Law School and a star of stage and screen—with one of the truly amazing voices in the history of the American and world-wide stage.

Tired of “nigger this” and “nigger that,” in his home country, he became enamored of the Soviet Union making an enemy of the dangerous Diretor of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.  Eventually called before the House Committee on Un-American Activity and blacklisted during the 1950s cold war period of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Robeson’s performing world collapsed when his passport was taken away for eight years at the height of his stage career.

Though Robeson is now remembered as a great and patriotic American, perhaps the most well-known black man for most of the 20th Century, his life and his amazing story comes alive in this Playhouse production as portrayed by Beaty, the brilliant actor and vocalist  whose work is completely deserving of the story of the heroic Robeson.

Accompanied by a musical trio and perfectly staged by veteran director Moises Kaufman this is a play not to be missed.   There is plenty of time to get tickets and go before the production closes November 3.

 

HEALTH IS FOCUS IN LA JOLLA AS ATLANTIC MEETS PACIFIC

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

by Barry Jagoda

What a splendid initiative, the just concluded third annual  “Atlantic Meets the Pacific conference again co-produced by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Atlantic Magazine set in the beautiful oceanside environment of La Jolla, California.  As in previous years the event this year, Oct 2-4, brought a very eager and attentive audience of about 300 to a series of interviews by Atlantic journalists who are tasked with coaxing useful ideas from leading scholars and researchers.

This process of bringing experts to present before a well-educated large number of paying guests ($495 for the event) worked very well in the past but was not quite as effective this year because the conference program focused in a much more detailed way on developments and potential in health and medical research where earlier such events zeroed in on more general topics more easily comprehended by non-specialists.

Still the line-up of highly regarded authors, discoverers, medical researchers and health care reformers produced gee-whiz moments.  Much of the useful information came in discussion on topics such as “Big Data, Big Disease:  Mining for Medical Breakthroughs,” which featured a heavy emphasis on use of new understandings from the genome leading toward potential thwarting of unsolved medical mysteries.  A significant portion of the conference was devoted to developments in cancer research, but on this and other topics the experts might well have talking to themselves as the conversation often seemed to require more background for any sort of useful audience take-away.

Many of the major academic and industry players could be seen around the conference venue.  Hard to miss, for example, was Ian Shakil of AUGMEDIX because he jumped right out of the crowd demonstrating the most intriguing “Google Glasses.”  Given an opportunity to test-run this amazing device, one quickly learned ease of operation and within less than a minute of wearing, as seen below, this writer was able to “shoot, record and playback” a video with the entire operation taking place us the glasses.  Google strikes again!

“Atlantic Meets the Pacific” came upon the splendid idea of dividing conference participants into small groups for tours of five of the many biotechnology labs that are ubiquitous in the area of San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood.  Most of these world-class facilities were set-up in the area because of the strong programs in science at UCSD.  Though in the realm of ideas “location” is far less important than the potential for collaborations, Inter-institutional work is a hallmark of the region and the conference planners have been very wise to set-up this annual meeting at La Jolla’s Pacific Ocean.

There was clearly a consensus of appreciation expressed by Conference attendees for a superbly organized program and flawless management of logistics including transportation and good food.  And, even for a generalist journalist, there was much food for thought.

 

Electric “Tribes” Engages La Jolla Playhouse Audience

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

by Barry Jagoda

“Tribes,” the wonderful drama currently on stage at The La Jolla Playhouse, did not look all that interesting at first glance but it turns out to be one of the most compelling presentations in years from this potentially wonderful San Diego house of creativity.

Many Playhouse productions have seemed to be tryouts for Broadway, particularly under the leadership of the much heralded Des McAnuff, the former Artistic Director.  But the team of Christopher  Ashley (who replaced Des several years ago) and his sidekick, Managing Director Michael Rosenberg, are making a valiant, and often successful, effort for the Playhouse to become relevant for those who want theater to be stimulating and not merely a site of ego gratification for the swells of La Jolla who come to hear bells and whistles and show up on Opening Night at what they think is world class when it has often been mindless froth.

Not “Tribes.”

This is a brilliant story of family dysfunction, one tribe comprised of an insufferable intellectual father, an overly empathetic mother and three children.  One of their kids, in this British-Jewish home, was born deaf.  The other two are aggressively hungry for their own success in music and academia.  Another tribe started as two deaf parents and their lovely hearing daughter.  When the two young deaf kids meet and fall in love they eventually try to start a third tribe, their own home and love.  This causes the boy—whose folks had forbidden him to learn sign language—to go the other way and completely embrace deaf culture.  Unfortunately his new girl-friend, gifted from birth with hearing but now in her twenties and herself losing it to painful noises of black rushing sounds, (evolving toward her parents and  their “disabled” life-style), announces, “I don’t want to be only deaf.”  Will they break-up?  (Earlier the audience,  including many without hearing, gets a huge laugh at the line, ‘The deaf are the Muslims of the disabled, handicapped world.”)

“Tribes” is a universal, painful story filled with life lessons about cultural relativity  and continuously asking the question of which of the many “tribes” among us is normal.  All six characters are wonderfully cast:  After a while one can easily forget you are inside a theater and begin to think you are at someone’s home in Britain trying to help sort out their problems.  “Tribes” is a treasure for the mind!

(L-R) Thomas DellaMonica, Meghan O’Neill, Russell Harvard, Lee Roy Rogers, Dina Thomas and Jeff Still share top billing in “Tribes

To it’s much appreciated credit the Playhouse has maintained deep skill in  understanding production values, lighting, costuming, set design and casting. Director David Cromer has turned this play into something most always understandable even with deaf characters communicating in the venue of the nearly wrap-around, thrust stage auditorium of the Playhouse Potiker Theater, not a simple task.  Of enormous help are the electronic surtitles flashed all around invoked not only to interpret the large amount of sign language being employed but also for such pedestrian assignments as warning the audience to “turn off cellphones.”  With “Tribes” we have the happy combination of great, unforgettable drama married to La Jolla Playhouse’s expected mastery of production values.  Unlike many Playhouse presentations the story is so good that, finally, the bells and whistles become merely an accompaniment instead of the main focus.

But, dear reader, if you are one seeking more and deeper substance, be advised that Des-the-Knife, like Mack-the-Knife, is back in town and directing an old San Diego favorite, “Sideways,” based on the charming buddy movie about two guys who take a car trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara,  We’ll review, in the next couple of days, what the old La Jolla Playhouse, with direction from the locally (and internationally) much-beloved McAnuff, does with this story.  Will he  have spoiled it trying to make his superficial audience entertained? One high-ranking, and very well informed Playhouse official whispered to this reporter, “I hear Des wants to take “Sideways to Broadway!”   We will let you know in this space next week.  This same Playhouse executive booster was particularly proud that the organization now has what appears to be a successful outreach all over San Diego.  ”We used to present five shows a year but now we have a total of 16 in communities all over the region and this all takes major donations and regular subscribers.”

Meanwhile, back to “Tribes.”  I do hope to be forgiven for turning to the ubiquitous Russian author Leo Tolstoy whose first sentence, in what some believe is the greatest novel of all time, “Anna Karenina,”Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The Anna Karenina Principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a success (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

In, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” his brilliant book of anthropology and geography, the unsurpassed Southern California intellectual, UCLA Professor Jared Diamond further explains the Karenina principle:  So few wild animals have been successfully domesticated, because a deficiency in any one of a number of factors can make a species “undomesticable.”

At the heart of “Tribes,” a play about language and love, is the question of what is a “deficiency” and what is “normal?”   Nina Raines, the author of the novel on which this production is based, seems to find deafness not really a deficiency, at least compared to the secular, intellectual striving and craziness of the main family on stage.  Go see (and hear) for yourself:  Tribes plays only until July 21.

At the end of the several hour production, which zoomed by on Friday night, July 19, as though in an instant, the sizable deaf contingent in the audience (provided with interpreters to sign for words that could not be heard) rose to their feet waiving arms and hands high, the American Sign Language signal for wild applause.  Others in the audience clapped vigorously in the “more normal” manner while “Bravo” also rang out after an unforgettable night in La Jolla.