Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thank you Lisa

I first became aware of Lisa Ling when I was in junior high and watched "Channel One" every day. The next time I heard from her was when she joined "The View." Leaving the daytime gab-fest may not have looked like a wise decision from someone so early in her career, but Ling knew she was meant to do more than have conversations around the table with celebrities. She was meant to talk to real people.

The first episode of "Our America" I saw was "Pray the Gay Away." Having had quite a bit of those same conversations in my own life, it was astonishing to see it play out on national television. There it was, being told out in the open. She also recognized that the story didn't end when the cameras stopped rolling and she revisited the subject. Not only was she a witness to the change, but her coverage also became a catalyst for the change. Exodus Ministries, the largest of the ex-gay movement ministries, shuttered and through "Our America," men who had been profoundly hurt and scarred were given the opportunity to confront the man behind the ministry. Some of the men found closure and maybe even forgiveness.

My personal favorite episode was actually about present day nuns. I tell people about it all the time. More than being an informative and enlightening hour of television, it was a masterclass in journalistic storytelling. Every angle was covered, every woman's story was told fully and with such care. The decisions of these women were honored by Ling in a way that made each of their stories important and meaningful. The amount of care shown left an impression on me that I haven't forgotten.

I'm going to miss "Our America." Ling has a way of telling the whole story, all sides and facets, and remaining as objective as a person can be while remaining present in the moment. Whether it was a gay christian, a man wrongfully convicted, a transgender person, a drug user or teenage mother, Ling allowed the stories of Americans to become thought-provoking and teachable moments. I know that her career doesn't end with "Our America," it continues to rise as she moves to CNN to continue her work, but I will miss this show. In an age where television channels are full of nonsense "reality" TV, "Our America" was TV that mattered and had the power to change lives.

Thank you Lisa.

A new Quest

Here's the thing. I watch a lot of TV. A lot. When someone asks me what shows I watch, I laugh first, blush second and own up to it third. I watch so much.

I've been excited about "The Quest" since I first heard the concept. It's a competition reality show set in a fantasy world that would coexist nicely within Middle Earth or any of the realms of "Game of Thrones." They are living in a fully realized world populated by citizens, royalty, monsters, villains and fantastical creatures. It's "Survivor" meets "Big Brother" meets "Lord of the Rings." I'm in.

I'll admit the first episode started slowly, but so did "The Fellowship of the Ring." There's a lot of groundwork that has to be laid for this fantasy world to build on. What did not take time to build was the fact that the attention to detail within this show is extraordinary. From the entrance through the tunnels to the grounds around the castle, everything felt as if we had gone on a journey with the contestants. It feels a lot like watching "Once Upon A Time," ABC's Sunday night fairy tale saga, except there's a human element of it knowing these contestants aren't actors. They are real people.

In an age where "reality TV" isn't really reality, the concept of "The Quest" is refreshing. It was said within the first two minutes of the show that the storyline is set and these adventurers are the pieces within the structured story. They fill out the narrative. While that removes the unpredictability so many watch reality TV for, it also gives us the knowledge that there's an endgame and it won't spiral on forever.

That narrative isn't that profound. But I think there's a lot underneath that narrative. One of that contestants, after she won the challenge, spoke about how she then felt like she deserved to be there. "...Not just a character I've build up in my head, but me, Bonnie. I deserve to be here." I feel like that's the takeaway from this show. Yes, the structure is fantasy and make-believe come to life, but the challenges and tests these people are facing are actually happening to them and for some of them, the boost in their self esteem is something they haven't felt before. The cast is a healthy mixture of diverse people but at the root of all of their stories, they felt like nerds. (Some are incredibly hot nerds I must say) Now, they are given the chance to exist in a world they previously only thought existed on a movie screen or in their imagination. Not only that, but they are the star of the story and have the opportunity to save the day in the final act.

I'm sticking with "The Quest." I think there's more to mine there and I'm a sucker for an underdog. And this is a show full of underdogs just waiting for their moment to prove to themselves they are worthy of the quest we call life.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Brittney Griner needs to take a seat.

Brittney Griner needs to take a seat.

In her new book, she talks about the homophobia she experienced while at Baylor University.

As a student of Baylor at the same time as Griner, I can tell you that we all knew she was gay. She openly held hands with her girlfriend on campus, they attended events together and spoke about it in class. The only time this has become an issue for her, is once she started talking to news outlets and she realized there's a lucrative book deal in talking trash about apparent conservatives in an effort to make her road appear more difficult as a gay person.

We know it's hard to come out and every person who goes through that process has their own story, especially in conservative environments. But Griner wasn't an outcast because she was gay at Baylor. People on campus looked up to her and in the two interactions I had with her, she was nothing but kind. Actually, one of those interactions was when she was hand-in-hand with her girlfriend. In public. No. One. Cared. She was doted upon and adulated like a celebrity and was often driven by a golf cart to her classes. There wasn't any talk about her not being able to be herself because in public, when I saw her, she was very open.

Gay people in the public eye need to quit this march of self-martyrdom. I understand that this story sells more books and will get you as the top news story on ESPN and OutSports, but the reality of the situation is not at all what she has presented it to be. It's a tacky scapegoat that sounds really great in the media. "The Baptist University tried to keep the superstar in the closet." When in reality, she was asked to not talk about it in relation to the basketball game. Why? Because it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight when you're on the court. It matters that you can make the play. So why take the focus off of being on a winning basketball team, one of the best in the country, to talk about the private life of a 22 year old girl?

Michael Sam has been in the news and was awarded at the ESPYs for being a trailblazer. While his coming out was also very calculated, he hasn't spoken ill of his time during college. As a matter of fact, he took the alternate route and has talked about the support he felt when he played football in college and that he's taking that support with him as he embarks on his NFL career this fall. Did he have people who didn't believe in him? Probably. But he's focused on the support.

While these comments from Griner will be but a blip on her career radar, it still irritates me that she took cheap shots at a university that paid for her education, gave her the opportunity to win a national championship and supported her all the way to the draft. Baylor is the alma mater of Olympic gold medalists, professional athletes, Emmy winning actresses and some of the top filmmakers in the country, all of which come back to Baylor to give back to the university that gave them their start. I wish Griner would do the same, rather than making Baylor a scapegoat for a more juicy sound bite to get people to buy her book.

I'm going to talk about Holler...

I keep my opinions mostly to myself when it comes to Broadway. Sure, my circle of friends and I will talk about what shows we liked and which ones we didn't, but basically, I keep that out of the public forum. Most of the reason is because I know and am friends with people who are working on Broadway in various capacities. Are they aware that not every show they've been a part of has been a winner? Yes. But they don't need me spewing that out on my Facebook feed. However, this summer, the debate about Broadway criticism has become almost more of a newsmaker than a show itself.

Holler If You Hear Me, the Broadway musical that used the music of Tupac as it's guide, opened and closed quickly. This wasn't surprising to most, especially among the people I know who saw the show, including myself.

I'll admit, I saw the show early on in previews. There were a couple weeks worth of changes that could have taken place between the time I saw it and when it opened, but in talking to people who went to see it after me, it didn't sound like much change had taken place.

My root-level thoughts are these: a large cast and crew were employed on Broadway. That's a win. The amount of talent within that cast list read like a gleaming beacon of belting divas and powerful men. That's a win.  The show was unlike anything else that was on the Great White Way. Win.
From the get-go, it was billed as the rap musical on Broadway. This was the selling point. Rap on Broadway with an almost entirely black cast. I think that's great. The Lion King and Motown both employ large mostly black casts, but that's about it. Broadway was and is a predominantly white person medium, something that is changing and needs to continue to do so. Even in BLEEP, I have written about the need for color-blind casting in classic shows. So having a big show in such a huge theater employing these actors was a win.

But when I got to the show, the excitement of something new quickly wore off as I was pummeled with the n-word in every other stanza, fed a less-than-compelling story and presented with performers who were not in the least bit utilized to the potential I've seen them have in other works. Another of the selling points was Tupac's poetic lyrics, which told the story of what was happening on the streets at the moment he was writing. The problem is that those lyrics were nearly impossible to understand as they were shouted sans any diction. Yes, I'm a white male with a masters degree in Communications from a private university, but for someone who doesn't know every word of the Tupac catalog (and I would argue that was 95% of the audience) that immediately sucked the poetic meaning out of the story...because you can't understand the story.

Even the ending, although borrowed from the book of West Side Story, felt like it could have been a poignant moment, until the shouting commenced again, utterly ruining any sort of emotional and teachable moment that existed.

After the show closes, star Saul Williams, did an interview with Rolling Stone where he blamed racism as the reason the show closed. There's no other way to read what he said. He is wrong. The show closed because it was a sub-par show, on too large of a stage, in a giant theater they could never fill in the middle of the summer. Motown sells out. Trip to the Bountiful was a hit. The Color Purple was a hit. This season, After Midnight was a hit and one of the best nights of theatre I have had. But when After Midnight closed, there wasn't any talk about racism being the reason.

Absent from most of the conversation was reference to In The Heights, the rap musical that won four Tonys, a Grammy and was nominated for the Pulitzer. But those were Hispanic people...so in some conversations I had, that nullified my argument apparently. But what I know, and this is coming from someone who actually lives in the heights and I experience the culture daily, is that In The Heights was rap. It was rap on Broadway that was insanely successful, launched people's careers and opened the door for more musicals in the same genre. The difference between In The Heights and Holler was that Holler wasn't a good musical. 

At the end of the day, it was poorly constructed, and rather than going Off-Broadway where it wouldn't be such a financial loss and also give the creative team time to gauge audience reaction, edit and change the show before spending Broadway money on it, they jumped at the chance to make a statement on a big stage. That statement didn't end up being what they wanted. 

I struggled with whether I was going to post this, but I've decided that just because I didn't like one show doesn't mean that I don't support art and the continued diversity of the art that's presented on the world's biggest stage, Broadway. After all, Broadway is the artform I love the most. I think that's why I just had to write it out and say what I wanted, because both audiences and the cast of Holler deserved better. Tupac deserved better than what was done with his lyrics. His writing serves as both a time capsule and a voice for people who feel voiceless. The intention was for that voice to roar on Broadway and instead, it shuttered with a whimper. 

What this show did do was ignite a conversation that needs to be had. Unfortunately, the conversation became about racism instead of what it needed to be about: producing better shows that warrant the $100 price tag attached to the tickets.