Monday, December 13, 2010

Music on Main

On the midst of the stretch of Main Street that runs from the border of Orange to the stately East Orange City Hall sits Christ Episcopal Church. Yesterday I had the chance to hear the Essex Chorale perform the first part of their annual Messiah. Main Street collapsed some years ago, a victim of the confluence of Route 280 and the Garden State Parkway. It has been slowly rebuilt, but little resistance to the automobile which has pushed the stores back to make for drive in/drive out parking, one of the great enemies of the pedestrian. Christ Episcopal Church, by its grand size and beautiful appointments, a church for well-heeled, still manages to glow, its bright white and gold altar a joyous sight. I love to watch the Chorale enter, the women in long black dresses and pearls, the men in their tuxedos, the soloists in a touch of color. I love to listen the orchestra tuning, searching for that perfection of sound. I love to watch Chorale Director Dr. DeCosta Dawson lift his baton and draw the performers to attention. I love to see friends and family who gather for the annual ritual. I love that I've gone to East Orange to see the Messiah for many years.

I had to leave early to speak on a panel being held in a building on Central Avenue in Newark. I was glad that the program organizer had waited outside for me: the area was empty and it seemed unlikely that something was happening there. I used to wait for the bus one block over. My mother would pick me up at the Newark Museum--always with a wholesome peanut bar to stave off hunger--and we'd take the bus home when her work and my afterschool program were finished. Central Avenue, too, has collapsed, yet once inside people's good cheer created good spirits as we considered issues of import.

When it came my turn to speak about women's health, I spoke about a study by Dr. Eva-Maria Simms who interviewed women in Pittsburgh's Hill District about what it was like to grow up there. She had a striking finding: in that context of the collapse of the Hill District, growing up had altered dramatically. In the 50s, before urban renewal, people lived in a dense community and neighbors and friends helped to raise the children. Children were never alone, always surrounded by others with whom they played and worked. In the 70s, after urban renewal, people grew up in much smaller social networks but had a sense of community with trusted neighbors. By the 1990s, people were retreating to their apartments, depending on friends and family, but no longer part of a functioning neighborhood that was looking out for their needs.

It is both a terrible diagnosis and a great treatment plan: starting with the wonderful rituals that have been preserved, we can rebuild the kind of dense and exciting places that will nurture us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"...And then I wrote a song about it"

I recently moved to West Orange, NJ, and live just off Valley Road where a new theater has opened for Luna Stage, a highly respected theater group that moved to West Orange from Montclair. This means that I can stroll over the theater, an experience that I love. Last Friday night I saw a one-man musical, "...And then I wrote a song about it." The play opens on New Year's Eve, 1979, with the story of Randall, a man who is turning 30. Talk about had me at hello! I was 29 then, and, like Randall, longing to be recognized for my talent. Randall is studying singing, dancing and theater but he's a quadruple threat because he also writes songs. What got me in every line of the show was its honesty which was so evocative and touching and funny funny funny. I so identify with people looking for love while disco dancing and had never ever seen such a funny rendition of this delightful theme. At the same time, hanging over us and about to explode, was the AIDS epidemic. From nearly the first moment, recognizing that this is a gay man's story, I was waiting for the appearance of Death, and thinking about the many women and men I've lost since then. It set off quite an ache to watch someone breezing through life, not knowing what was around the corner. Watching Randall, I laughed, I cried, I remembered when. I was so grateful to singer/dancer/actor Nick Cearley whose fierce and delicious energy brought the story to life. This wonderful show is at Luna Stage through December 19th. If you ever discoed, thought about AIDS or fought with your father, you'll love this show.