Over three months have passed since I published a blog post. In the interim, much has happened–globally, nationally, and personally.
Globally, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Most Americans were not made aware of the virus until early March, even though it began in mid-November of 2019 with deaths in Wuhan, China; became a full-fledged outbreak by the end of that year; and infected the first American on January 21, 2020.
Nationally, businesses have had to close down, with many in the larger cities covering their shopfronts with sheets of plywood as protection. This blog post, and at least one more to follow it, will document the writing and painting that has subsequently appeared on these wooden coverings and wall surfaces. The process of painting these boards continues right up to this day, as Americans everywhere respond to separate and growing incidents of police brutality against Black citizens.
Personally, I came down with COVID-19 on March 19, less than two weeks after I published my last blog post. The next three weeks, for me, were the most miserable of my entire life, but I am fully recovered and was never hospitalized. That last blog post of mine awaits a sequel, a Part II; but I had no energy nor will to even boot up my computer. To help me reconnect, my dear wife bought me a new I-phone that would accept the Instagram app. This enabled me to transfer my love for photographic images to the less demanding–I’d say, even mindless–activity of putting out Instagram posts.
I continue to post images on Instagram [as tykokdt]; but now, feeling less vulnerable to the COVID virus, I have ventured back to the streets of New York. This post will begin a documentation of some of the post-COVID-19 visual transformations of our New York streetscape.
The sequel to my previous post will just have to wait.
As the entablature above those elegant, four Corinthian columns of the front porch tell us, this was once the Union Square Savings Bank. This Greek Revival “temple to finance” was built between 1905-1907. Its architect was none other than Henry Bacon, the designer of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. His building would become the Daryl Roth Theatre in 2002, almost a century later.
A landmark building like this surely demanded protection, once the pandemic called for the closing of all interior spaces to the public. Here we see an eight-foot high plywood wall blocking access to the front entrance facing Union Square; the wall continues down the long 15th Street side of the theatre.
The painting on the front is dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement (#BlackLivesMatter), which had been founded in 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. As you can see by my caption, I also title this wall, Say Their Names, since it displays the names of some forty Black men and women who were murdered either by police or, in some instances, by white vigilantes. Speaking the names of Black victims of such horrendous violence forces everyone to perceive of them as individuals, as people with families and friends, and not to be dismissed as “the Other.”
Running down the south side of the Theatre are quotations from well-known people: some from the world of theater, some not; some Black, some not. What unifies all these quotations are themes of social justice, civil rights and personal, individual rights.
The quotation closest to us in the above photograph, by actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, is from her play, Notes from the Field (2015). This play focuses on the injustices of America’s school-to-prison pipeline [YouTube 3:15]. This horrendous distortion of juvenile “justice,” in the words of Carolyn Clay, “stretches from kindergarten suspensions to Black Lives Matter.”
Here, if you wish, is a most enlightening HBO interview with Smith about Notes from the Field (in the research for which she interviewed 250 people in four geographic areas) [YouTube 31:29].
The above quotation, “To Redeem the Soul of America…,” was, as Martin Luther King, Jr. saw it, to face the evil of over three-hundred years of slavery, racism and human exploitation. I would hope that, were it not for this oppressive history, America would not have conceived of sending school children to prison.
Because the above quotation also makes reference to our revered civil rights leader and Georgia politician, John Lewis, allow me to end with his most recent take on the idea of redemption. Earlier this year, while attending the 55th anniversary of Selma’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstrations, Lewis encouraged the crowd to redeem the soul of America in this way: “We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.”
You may watch and listen here to this CNN clip of Lewis speaking to the crowd [2:19].
The above quotation from American novelist, poet and social activist, Alice Walker, comes from her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). Here it is in fuller context: “But please remember, especially in these times of group-think and the right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.”
For a brief [3:45] but moving insight into Alice Walker’s character, watch this 2008 interview with Swapna Ramaswamy. In one instance, Walker urges oppressed people–women, children–to speak up for themselves. “Children, especially,” she says, “will have no future if they don’t start speaking up, and I’m talking to all the children of the world. Children have to realize that they are a global tribe and they have to pledge allegiance to each other and try to get through this nightmare that grownups have imposed on them.” What Walker is promoting here is the idea that many individual acts will, through collectivization, lead to social change.
August Wilson‘s play, Gem of the Ocean, was first performed in 2003. It’s setting was the Pittsburgh of 1904. Its main characters are all Black. Also ostensibly free, since this is forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, they nevertheless remain oppressed and held down by debt to the local mill. The character Solly, expanding on this quotation, tells Eli: “I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.”
For a lively discussion of, and revealing insights into, the Black experience in America, listen to (and read the transcript of) August Wilson’s 2017 interview [7:11] with Bill Moyers. I particularly applaud this perfect ending, when Moyers asks: “Don’t you grow weary of thinking black, writing black, being asked questions about blackness?” To which Wilson responds: “Well, how could one grow weary of that? I mean, you never transcend who you are.”
Larry Kramer, playwright, LGBT rights activist, founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, later, of Act Up, was not one to mince his words. Here is what directly preceded the quotation above: “Being gay is a natural normal beautiful variation on being human. Period. End of subject. Therefore, any argument which says differently is an immoral supremacist one. Call it out as such…Be outraged…”
That is Larry Kramer, and here is as good and as brief a summary of his life and influence as one might find [YouTube 9:52].
Gloria Steinem, possibly the world’s most famous feminist, often spoke of empathy in this way. I offer one example–a lecture that she gave in March of 2018 titled “#MeToo and Time’s Up: The Future of feminism?”–in which she acknowledges the role of empathy in creating and expanding community (and, God knows, with a president who seems unable to empathize with anybody and is determined to tear apart communities, Americans more than ever need to tap into their well of empathy). Here is Gloria Steinem from that keynote lecture in celebration of Women’s History Month:
“We are communal creatures. We are meant to be together sitting in a group, sitting around a campfire telling each other our stories. That’s how we empathize….you realize you’re not alone, you’re not crazy. That, first of all, you have a community, which is the single most important thing, and you have support for the next step and the next….We can’t live in the future, we can only live in the present, given our five senses, so the more community we can produce in the present, the better the future we will have.”
If you wish to see Gloria Steinem in action, watch her speak [YouTube 5:35] at the January 19, 2019 Women’s March in New York City. Particularly relevant was her quoting of the Pueblo Laguna scholar, Paula Gunn Allen: “The root of oppression is the loss of memory.”
Both these quotations are direct and to the point. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress (from New York, 1968), distilled political activism to its most basic element–the vote. Chisholm died in 2005. Fifteen years later, the Black vote is just as precious–and threatened–as Republicans employ many tactics to suppress minority voting. One person, one vote, is a centerpiece of American democracy. But to Chisholm, real democracy still eluded Black Americans. In a speech on “Black Power” at Howard University (1969), Chisholm decried our “false democracy” and called for Black Americans to take control of their own destinies: “It is idiotic,” she said, “to labor under the old, the white supremacist supposition: that a white man knows what’s good for the black man.”
Here is a brief taste of Shirley Chisholm’s political oratory [YouTube 2:14], “Shirley Chisholm speaks truth.”
Florynce Kennedy, a Black feminist and anti-racism activist, founded the Feminist Party, which nominated Shirley Chisholm for president (1972). She was the ultimate political activist and a champion of what is now called intersectionality. Kennedy understood well that the “pathology of oppression” damaged not only Black people, but also “women, gay people, ex-prison inmates, prostitutes, children, old people, handicapped people, native Americans.”
The Tony Kushner quotation comes from his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. In Part II: Perestroika (1994), the gay protagonist, Prior, is relating to Belize, his Black drag queen nurse, a conversation he had with an Angel. Sympathizing with the Angel’s concern that the potential for change and progress defining life on earth has disrupted Heaven, Prior says, “It’s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.”
Belize responds: “But that’s not how the world works, Prior. It only spins forward.”
Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen has, in his words, “dealt with depression ever since my adolescence.” Nevertheless, he has managed to explore with great sensitivity a broad spectrum of life in his writing. And as he enumerates his attempts to deal with bipolar depression, from Prozac and Ritalin to Buddhism and meditation, he also notes that “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” I suspect this quotation is a metaphor of his take on life: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
These words are the refrain of his song, Anthem, which you can hear him sing here [YouTube, 8:27]. Don’t pass up this opportunity to be profoundly moved by one of the truly soulful poets of song.
Lorraine Hansberry was the first Black woman author to have a play performed on Broadway. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, follows a lower class Black family in Chicago in the 1950s and their individual struggles to define their identities within the dominant white culture of America.
For more on Hansberry, I offer two videos. One a very brief trailer to a movie titled, Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart [YouTube 2:41]. The other a more lengthy and revealing interview in 1959 with Studs Terkel [YouTube 46:35].
The anger of which Maya Angelou speaks here, refers (in general) to the treatment of Black people in America (and specifically) to the many assassinations in the 1960s: Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Fred Hampton (1968), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). I counted at least 17 American civil rights activists (some were white) who were killed in the 1960s. Although one can encounter this quotation in many places, its chief source is an interview with Angelou in May, 2014, by Dave Chappelle. After first admitting to anger (“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry”) she warns listeners to never be bitter and concludes with these words: “You talk it. Never stop talking it.”
Because the interview, Iconoclast: Dave Chappelle + Maya Angelou is lengthy (skip its first 9 minutes of introduction) [YouTube 47:39], I also offer this brief gem, I Am Human [YouTube 3:02], which reveals the essence of this great woman’s soul through statements like this: “What I pray for is humility, to know that there is something greater than I.”
Ntozake Shange is a Black poet and playwright. The words quoted here are from a piece of performance poetry in which Shange, using reggae rhythm and vernacular speech, evokes a woman dreaming of an ideal marriage with Bob Marley. All three quotations imply Black Americans, in some manner, taking control of their destiny and future.
Every written medium served equally well for James Baldwin‘s examination of the Black experience in America, be it plays, short stories, novels, essays, or even film criticism. In fact, Noah Berlatsky, writing for The Atlantic in 2014, called Baldwin “the greatest film critic ever.” Four major films, starting in 1984 with Go Tell It on the Mountain, are adapted from Baldwin’s writings.
The above quotation is taken from one of those films, I Am Not Your Negro (2016). This film envisions an unfinished Baldwin book on race in America. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the writer’s original words. This is how it ends:
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettoes without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage: You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
One must marvel at Baldwin’s command of language and audience, and nowhere is this on better display than his debate with William Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. The debate topic was this: “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” Here is a much-abbreviated segment of Baldwin’s speech [YouTube 8:15] to which I give you his final words: “We are trying to forge a new identity, for which we need each other…I am not a ward of America…I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American Dream because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence will wreck it…and if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West. Thank you.”
Since the quotation from William Shakespeare‘s King Henry VIII may be hard to read, here it is: “It is a kind of good to say well and yet words are not deeds…“
How, you might ask, does a play written more than 400 years ago relate to the rest of these quotations? Shakespeare is certainly not writing about the Black experience in America!
But he is writing here about the hollowness of words when divorced from any meaningful action. In this scene (Act 3, Scene 2), the King is speaking to his untrustworthy, corrupt and self-serving Cardinal, Wolsey. His implication is that words, no matter how supportive, mean little unless they are accompanied by deeds and loyal actions.
The same has been said today, in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as corporations everywhere willingly give visual and verbal support to #BlackLivesMatter. But their support may be no deeper than Cardinal Wolsey’s, as articles in The Atlantic, or Forbes, or The New York Times, or The Washington Post suggest.
Frederick Douglass, the great nineteenth-century statesman, orator and social reformer was also an escaped slave. He spoke the above-quoted words in 1857 in a speech at Canandaigua, New York entitled “West India Emancipation.” Douglass was addressing the history of the British in emancipating West Indian slaves, but these words would soon be considered as an anticipation of the American Civil War which would begin four years later.
Paula Vogel‘s Indecent is a creative re-telling of a play written a century earlier–God of Vengeance–by the Polish writer, Sholem Asch. Even though the play’s characters are all white, familiar conflicts emerge between a normative group, defined by Protestantism and heterosexuality, and the Other: Jewish and a homosexual lesbian relationship. In Vogel’s telling, as Asch begins to rehearse his play in 1907 Poland, he expands on the question we see above, asking: “How do we as Jews show ourselves as flawed and complex human beings?”
Listen to Paula Vogel in October, 2018 [YouTube 1:48] briefly describe Indecent and ruminate on its similarities to America today under the GOP and the Trump Presidency: “…the rise in hate speech, the way that we are dividing our communities, the way that we are forgetting that we are a nation of immigrants. All of the warning signals, I feel are there; and so that’s also side-by-side with, I think, a call to remember that as Americans, as human beings, as neighbors, we share so much love in common…”
George C. Wolfe won Tony Awards for his own play, Jelly’s Last Jam, and two times for his directing: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993) and Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk (1996). His quotation of wanting to create theater “that looks, feels and smells like America” refers to his decade as Artistic Director of the Joseph Papp Public Theater (1993-2004) and his desire to create “cultural collisions” by expanding audiences beyond its traditional “uptown white” clientele.
In June, 2018, The Greene Space hosted George Wolfe in its “Icons & Innovators” series. Although over an hour in length [YouTube 1:14:14], it abounds with fascinating insights into the life and creative talent of this man. I simply urge you to listen to the first twelve minutes, to Susan Fales-Hill’s wonderful introduction of Wolfe, followed by his recounting of one particular (grade) school experience which he summarizes in this way: “Someone told me at a very early age: If you ferociously commit to language and to song and imbue it with heart and defiance, you can change the world.”
The protective boards end, fittingly, with Martin Luther King, Jr‘s quotation, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” He spoke these words as prelude to concluding “The Other America,” a speech delivered at Grosse Pointe South High School on March 14, 1968. “America has failed to hear….that the plight of the negro poor has worsened…that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met…that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
King was assassinated three weeks later.
Here is his entire speech, with an audio clip of its concluding two paragraphs.
Having no success in contacting the Daryl Roth Theatre about its role, if any, in the making of these boards and the selection of the quotations, I will simply assume–given the visual evidence–that there was some level of theatre involvement.
Also, the chalk markings that provide visual continuity among the quotations have a signature: @thechalkjungle. Regretfully, I also had no success in contacting this artist, a person named William Fuentes.
I add to this Afterword because, on July 3, 2020, I was delighted to hear from Daryl Roth (a mutual friend had alerted her to my post). She provides the following important information as to the purpose and genesis “Behind the Boards:”
“I am a theater producer, and what I was trying to do was to have the walls of my theater ‘talk’ even though we have been forced to be closed because of the pandemic.
I enlisted the help of my young interns, one of which is my granddaughter a theater student at Yale, to help select quotes that would be meaningful and inspirational to those walking by.
I wanted to include playwrights that I have produced, Paula Vogel, Gloria Steinem, Anna Deavere Smith, along with important activists, poets and other writers whose words would engage people.”