“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 16: Will Coviello on Krewe du Vieux, Leslie Castay and John Pope on “Sweeney Todd” and Alison Logan on “The Original Classy Broad”

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We had a lot of fun on Saturday’s (Feb. 11) episode of WHIV (102.3 FM), in which we welcomed a wide range of guests:

Will Coviello, arts and entertainment editor for Gambit, as Krewe du Vieux prepared to roll in the Marigny and French Quarter that night. (Coviello also is a member of the sub-krewe Spermes).

Leslie Castay, who played The Beggar Woman in the New Orleans Opera Association’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and writer John Pope, who offered his take on the blurred lines between opera and musical theater for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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Can watching The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” help make America great again?

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WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Feb. 9-11), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

To attend a production of The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” at Delgado Community College is to take a step back in time. Yes, it takes one back to the early 1990s, when the kinetic rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogues and monologues had not yet invaded America by way of movies (“The American President”) or TV shows (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”). The stage and screen versions arrived as a kind of postscript to 1980s Hollywood — in which macho, Reagan-era action thrillers like “Red Dawn” and subtle, pro-military movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman” were juxtaposed with Vietnam War cautionary parables like “Platoon” bemoaning the insanity of war.

But it also feels like going all the way back … to 2016.

As noted a few weeks ago in the preview to the show, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep’s famous “You can’t handle the truth” monologue provided the rationale for collateral damage; that to defend our country, we need the few, the proud, but also, the strong. The weak must be pushed to the side — even eliminated — to defend our higher ideals. This is not just about thinning the herd. The Marines, as their soldier characters tell us, live by a code: “Unit, corps, God, country.” And when someone breaks that code, they must pay a price, for the good of the country. But Sorkin tells us that there’s such a thing as understanding the differences, the nuances, of a code, especially when improperly applied. We are, he argues, rational, thinking human beings, and we must understand when living a life blindly following orders, we blind ourselves to doing what is right.

All of this stuff has been pondered over the years, but watching the show live onstage for the first time in over a decade — there was a capable mounting of the play at True Brew Theater — conjured fresher images. And part of that is because, intended or unintended, “A Few Good Men” arrived again fresh off a contentious presidential election, and finished up a few weeks into the Trump administration. It’s almost impossible to think about words like strength and weakness and not think about Trump’s motto — “Make America great again” — and wonder at what price, or even in what way, that greatness is supposed to be achieved. In my mind, what Trump is also getting at is strength, which is part of the backbone of the kind of authoritarianism and nationalism Trump is consistently pushing. When forced to criticize Russian President Vladmir Putin, Trump always demurs, preferring instead to compare Putin’s so-called strength as a leader to the perceived weakness of Trump’s more cerebral predecessor, ex-President Barack Obama.

In some ways, I see a lot of Trump in Lt. Col. Jessep, and a little bit of Obama in his underling, Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson. Jessep is hard charging, a win-at-all-costs kind of guy who only respects action and strength, and detests weakness. He’s also a bit caught up in his own vanity, comfortable not just in his moral certitude (as confirmed by his other underling) but also in the knowledge he’s about to move up in the military ranks. The latter, like Obama, is cerebral, reticent, and hesitant to use force.

[Learn more: “Hillary Is Tom Cruise To Trump’s Jack Nicholson In ‘A Few Good Men’ Debate”: Huffington Post]

So what does that make the rest of us, in this play, or in this new world order? Maybe we’re like the two grunts, Dawson and Downey, who did a bad thing, however hesitantly, because they were only following orders, and following a code to its letter or face some version of dishonor. How will we respond as citizens when we’re told to do things in the name of strength, or in the name of the law (our “code”), when it doesn’t seem right to us?

Or maybe we’re more like the callow Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who has at least a smidgeon of rank but who’s also oblivious to the ways of a military that is (as Jessep continually insists) in the business of saving lives? And someone who doesn’t initially appreciate this strict code? And someone who, to better fight this code’s misinterpretations, must work the unused muscles of his own code of ethics.

Living in 2017 and not 1992, I most related to Kaffee’s good friend and defense teammate, Lt. Sam Weinberg (played here by Andrew Larrimer), arguably the moral conscience of the group, and (not to be overlooked) a new father. When guiding a newborn life, a parent appreciates the dangers of this world, and almost immediately develops a pathological wariness of bullies. When asked by Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway why he doesn’t like his clients, Sam retorts, “They beat up on a weakling. The rest is just smoke-filled coffee house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn’t like him. So, they killed him.” (Galloway’s response about why she likes her clients — in the movie version but not this play’s version — is awesome: “Because they stand on a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.’” It’s as maternal a thought was one could imagine, just applied differently.)

So what, if anything, does “A Few Good Men” tell us about doing the right thing, or even about the moral or ethical value of disobeying orders in the service of a greater good — especially now? While conceding the realities of political theater, we are seeing various forms of disobedience (or “resistance”) in these early, chaotic weeks of the Trump administration. We see it in the firing of then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee) after she instructed the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s immigration-related executive order in court.

[Learn more: Performances overcome script’s flaws in NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men”: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

We see it in the increasingly popular Twitter feed “Rogue Potus Staff,” which describes itself as “The unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” (This has not yet been confirmed.)

But after watching “A Few Good Men,” I can’t help but wonder where else we might see someone in the government, in the military, even, refusing a direct order they believe to be wrong. I’m reminded of one of the two missile silo operators in another Reagan-era movie, “WarGames,” in which he refuses to follow orders and launch a nuclear strike on Russia because he just can’t believe he’s supposed to do this. (He’s replaced by a computer.) In the real world, how many times can the intelligence community listen to a president demean its work? How many times can the military be asked to execute a possibly poorly planned mission, or see its role on the National Security Council diminished? At what point will good people, with good intentions, be asked to do something they believe in their heart is wrong, and contradict an order? And should they?

President Trump believes he can “Make American great again,” and that he can do it through authoritarian action, and through a strain of nationalism that strikes at the heart of our own rather obvious multicultural and pluralistic identity. And so we might seek wisdom where we can find it. I confess to an affinity for Sorkin’s often-lofty and idealistic prose. In the final scene, Dawson explains to Downey why, even after Jessep’s improbably confession, they’re still found guilty of a lesser charge — “It means we beat the shit out of the wrong guy.”

I wonder if we’ll be coming to that realization, like Dawson and Downey — after the fact, when it’s too late.

Podcast: Another year, another “Sweeney Todd” for Leslie Castay


(Photo by Tom Grosscup)

WHAT: New Orleans Opera Association presents the Stephen Sondheim classic inspired by the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian London
WHEN: Fri. (Feb. 10), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts
TICKETS: $25-$218
MORE INFO: Visit NOOA website

To say that speaking with Leslie Castay is in familiar territory is an understatement. She’s sitting in the office of B. Michael Howard, the Tulane musical theater chair and former leader of the Summer Lyric Theatre, which staged Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Sweeney Todd,” just a few steps downstairs in the Lupin Theater.

Castay, who’s working with Howard as she gets her master’s in musical theater, played the role of Mrs. Lovett in that 2016 production, and, in what is more than a happy coincidence, is back in the same production but in a different role when the New Orleans Opera Association presents the show on Friday night (Feb. 10) and Sunday afternoon (Feb. 12) at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park. In this production, Castay takes on the role of the Beggar Woman, who (spoiler alert!) is just as familiar with “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as the other woman, so to speak.

(You might remember Leslie Castay from her PopSmart NOLA contribution about performing in “The Lion in Winter.”)

As John Pope notes in NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, “Sweeney Todd” blurs the lines between musical theater and traditional opera, but definitely will enjoy a grander stage and with a more fleshed-out stage production. In this little “PopSmart NOLA” podcast treat (in advance of Saturday’s show on WHIV, 102.3 FM, 3 p.m.-4 p.m.), Castay discusses why she loves the production and how those lines blur.

“Sweeney Todd” is inspired by the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian London; Sondheim’s score fueled eight Tony Awards in 1979 in telling a darkly funny and macabre tale of murder and revenge.

This particular production features a family reunion of sorts; the husband-and-wife team of New Orleans native Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Lovett) join forces for this production after having performed in the show separately over the years.

“Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” puts women at the forefront of Mardi Gras history at the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytere

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WHAT: Louisiana State Museum presents an exhibition celebrating the history of all-female Carnival krewes as Iris marks its centenary
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 10); runs through December 2018
WHERE: The Presbytere (751 Chartres St.)
MORE INFO: Visit the Louisiana State Museum website

One of the most anticipated features of the 2017 Carnival season will examine the feminine mystique when the Louisiana State Museum (LSM) opens its “Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” exhibition on Friday (Feb. 10) at the Presbytere.

Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival Exhibition from LaStateMuseum on Vimeo.

The exhibition, produced with the support of krewes of Iris, Muses and Nyx, will, among other things, use the centennial commemoration of Iris to explore the evolution of female krewes, from the 1890s to contemporary Carnival — which has seen an explosion of the concept over the past two decades. There will be rare artifacts from the LSM’s vast collection, but also will include pieces from outside lenders, including what is considered the earliest-known existing queen’s dress of Iris that was worn in 1941 by Irma Cazenave — spouse of Count Arnaud Cazenave. The dress has been provided on loan from Arnaud’s restaurant.

“The Krewe of Iris boldly paved the way for other women’s krewes,” said Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said in the press release. “The tremendous surge in participation in Mardi Gras by women is a testament to their success.”

Iris is named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow. When it was founded back in 1917, the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing, and the right to vote was just a couple years away. The emergence of Iris came after two decades of New Orleans women’s work to establish Carnival organizations. Les Mystérieuses, the first of its kind, premiered with a ball in 1896. While the more recent emergence of such noted all-female krewes as Muses, Nyx and Femme Fatale will be noted, “Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” will fill in the major gap in between — including a look at the first women’s parade, held by the Krewe of Venus in 1941.

(Check out images and other artifacts from the exhibition here.)

There also will be references to long-lost krewes such as “the Mittens, the Mystic Maids, Empyreans, Titanians and more,” the press release noted. “Long-lived parading krewes such as Shangri-La, Rhea and Cleopatra will provide another important part of the chronicle of women and carnival. Original tableau ball artworks executed by Spangenberg Studios; paintings inspired by the Iris, Muses and Nyx parades; and the very first Muses shoe from their inaugural 2001 parade will make this exhibition sparkle with the spirit of the many women’s krewes that have left their mark on carnival history.”

Some of the fun facts and highlights of the exhibition, courtesy of the museum, include:
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“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 15.: Focus on Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (podcast)

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Documentary about writer and social critic James Baldwin; Raoul Peck directs, Samuel L. Jackson stars
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 3)
WHERE: Broad Theater, 636 N Broad St.
MORE INFO: Visit the Broad Theater website

UPDATE: The podcast is up! Listen to the complete show, and individual segments, below …

I’m very excited to announce Saturday’s episode of “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM) focused exclusively on the Academy Award-nominated James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which premiered in New Orleans at the Broad Theater on Friday (Feb. 3).

The episode will be presented in two segments — the first one featuring perspectives from those familiar with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and social critic, and the second one focusing on “I Am Not Your Negro” from a more cinematic perspective in a year when the Best Documentary category in the Academy Awards is dominated by works about (and by) people of color. And so we’ll welcome:

Jarvis DeBerry, deputy opinions editor and columnist for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. DeBerry wrote a fascinating piece during last year’s protests against police violence, referencing the 50th anniversary of Baldwin’s essay in The Nation, “A Report From the Occupied Territory.”

Felipe Smith, associate professor in the Department of English at Tulane University, and one of the founders and a past director of the Program in Africana Studies at Tulane. His 1998 book, “American Body Politics: Race, Gender, and Black Literary Renaissance (University of Georgia Press), addresses the cultural politics of the racial and gender classification of American bodies as a shaping influence in the development of writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson around the turn of the last century.

Angela Tucker, an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director. Her directorial work includes “(A)sexual,” a feature-length documentary available on Netflix and iTunes; “Black Folk Don’t,” a documentary web series filming its fourth season featured in Time Magazine’s “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life”; “The Older Fish,” a short documentary for TIME Inc.; and “Just the Three of Us,” a short fiction film starring Leslie Uggams. Tucker is the Series Producer for the PBS documentary series, “AfroPop,” and a Co-Producer on “The New Black.” She is currently directing and producing “Paper Chase,” a feature-length comedy written by Tucker and collaborator Lauren Domino. She received her MFA in Film from Columbia University. Continue reading

With “I Am Not Your Negro,” a look at James Baldwin looking back at us

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Documentary about writer and social critic James Baldwin; Raoul Peck directs, Samuel L. Jackson stars
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 3)
WHERE: Broad Theater, 636 N Broad St.
MORE INFO: Visit the Broad Theater website

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
— James Baldwin, “Remember This House”

Raoul Peck tries to frame his Academy Award-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” as essayist and culture critic James Baldwin tried to frame his (unfinished) work, “Remember This House” — as a memoir about his personal remembrances of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (None of them survived the 1960s, and none of them, as Baldwin notes, made it to 40 years old.) While the documentary, like the manuscript, never quite gets there in terms of its structure, it gets just about everywhere else — including our current national mood.

If “I Am Not Your Negro” accomplishes anything else, it’s in showing the timelessness and relevance of Baldwin’s cutting commentary about the state of racial relations in the United States, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Peck (“Lumumba”) lays Baldwin’s crystal-clear observations against the backdrop of both myriad pop-culture references and juxtapositions of unforgettable imagery. One moment we could be watching fire hoses and police batons being turned on protesters from the turbulent ’60s, sure, but the next we’re watching the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., which became a flashpoint for protesting the treatment by police officers of an under-served, and predominantly African-American, community.

Too often, he saw a white nation in denial, and one in turn that saw the legacy of slavery as a pointless burden and not a challenge to evolve as a culture. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy” of the nation, he frets at one point. “… White people don’t know our lives. It’s apathy and ignorance.”

Peck presents Baldwin in two settings: in person, in archival TV interviews and lectures, and in somber, understated voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson, reading ostensibly from “Remember This House.” Baldwin pitched the memoir to his agent as a way to frame his life through his observations and the lives of the three civil rights leaders, and at times “I Am Not Your Negro” interconnects Baldwin with the work of Evers, Malcolm X and King. It’s a complicated structure which brings its own set of truths; at one point we’re painfully reminded of how critical Malcolm X was of King — as witnessed in their joint appearance with Baldwin in the PBS special “The Negro and the American Promise” in 1963. (You can watch the Malcolm X segment here; King’s segment here; and James Baldwin’s segment here.)


James Baldwin. (Photo by Bob Adelman, courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The leaders’ three respective assassinations — Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and King in 1968 — serve as almost succinct end chapters of the 95-minute film, and each time Baldwin laments the pain those deaths inflict on his soul. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63, and so “I Am Not Your Negro” serves as the best representation of his memoir.

There are times when you want to know even more about Baldwin and not just his words, although one could argue his words were his life. But one thing becomes clear in his reflections in “Remember This House,” and that’s his place as an outsider. Baldwin also was gay, a status his FBI was sure to point out (as well as his being a “dangerous individual”). Even as he explained his motives for his memoir, he wrote how he was neither this nor that: “The line that separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line, indeed,” Baldwin says through Jackson. “Nevertheless, the line is real.”

And so the non-joiner — who wasn’t a Muslim or a Black Panther, who wasn’t a Christian or a member of the NAACP — tries to tap into the lives of his more famous contemporaries and offer a civil rights-era history lesson along the way. Louisianians will recognize familiar imagery — including the Plaquemines Parish political boss and staunch segregationist Leander Perez, and reminders of New Orleans’ role as a center of the slave trade.

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The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Pamela D. Arceneaux offers her Top 5 reasons to read “Guidebooks to Sin”

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WHAT: The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Pamela D. Arceneaux offers the first contemporary study of the illicit New Orleans district’s notorious directories.
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 7, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Octavia Books (523 Octavia St.)

WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Maple Street Book Shop (7519 Maple St.)

NOTE: Originally, I asked The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) reps if Pamela D. Arceneaux — Senior Librarian/Rare Books Curator — would be interested in offering her top 5 reasons she found it interesting to research what became her new book, “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans” (with a forward by Emily Epstein Landau) to anticipate its book-release party at THNOC on Friday, Feb. 3. The event has since sold out, as well as a Saturday symposium. But, as noted above, there are future events worth noting now so fans can plan ahead. Here are Arceneaux’s thoughts on her project below.

Between 1897 and 1917, Storyville, an infamous, yet legal, red-light district thrived on the edge of the French Quarter, and in “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans,” Pamela D. Arceneaux offers the first contemporary study of the area’s notorious directories.

Arceneaux states:
As the senior librarian and rare books curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection, these books have been an ongoing obsession for me for more than 35 years. Personally, I was interested in New Orleans during that turn-of-the-century era, and in Storyville specifically, and was attracted to these little directories to the brothels and women of the red-light district as soon as I found out about them. Here are five reasons that I find the books interesting and want people to know about these New Orleans prostitution guides.

Blue book : Tenderloin 400.1) Storyville existed for only 20 years, and these guides (collectively called “blue books” even though they were issued under different titles) are among the few tangible relics that remain from the District. Created by an 1897 city ordinance that legalized prostitution within a geographically specified area just north of the French Quarter, Storyville operated as a thriving red light district that attracted tourists from around the country. With American entry into World War I, vice districts located near military installations were forced to close, ushering Storyville’s demise on November 12, 1917.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Cover of Blue Book, [1901]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.4  

Blue book.2) Advertisements for brothels in genuine blue books contain little or no reference to sex — other than “French” or “69” indicating fellatio — and do not list prices for services. In fact, brothel advertisements did not even give any real information or personal descriptions about the women who managed or worked in the brothels. Decades after Storyville’s demise, fakes and facsimiles of these prostitution guides sold to tourists traded on its bawdy legacy. These reproductions often contained raunchier language than the genuine guides and helped give rise to the misconception that the blue books contained explicit material.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Brothel advertisement from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

Blue book.3) Numerous nationally and internationally recognized brands, including Budweiser, Pabst, Falstaff, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, I. W. Harper, Dewars, and Black and White advertised in these prostitution guides, indicating a broad reach. These advertisements, along with those for local goods and services, targeted a wealthy, white male audience, and help piece together a night in Storyville for both visitors to New Orleans as well as locals.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Advertisements from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

bluebooks_groupshot4) It is still unknown how many editions of these guides were published, or how many copies of each edition were printed. The Historic New Orleans Collection holds 24 copies of genuine guides from the Storyville-era, spanning fifteen individual editions. Our 16 copies of post-Storyville-era fakes and facsimilies represent 10 different individual editions. Together, they make up what is possibly the largest collection of New Orleans prostitution guides. Very few have survived, and examples that come on the market are considered quite rare.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: A selection of blue books from The Historic New Orleans Collection

Blue book.5) The “blue books” promoted Storyville as an entertainment, dance, and music venue at a time when the city was marketing itself as a winter resort, convention, and Carnival destination. This self-promotion reveals that the District and its entrepreneurs were in step with social and commercial trends that separated luxury from reality, and that the glamour suggested in its guides was part of a concentrated marketing strategy to attract upper-class white men. This marketing strategy has ensured New Orleans’ reputation as a good-time town to the present day.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Advertisement and preface from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

— With grateful appreciation to The Historic New Orleans Collection for providing these archival images.

“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM), Ep. 14: Michael Aaron Santos on “A Few Good Men,” Kathy Randels & Sean LaRocca sing, Damien Moses on “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and Alex Rawls on Jazz Fest

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Saturday’s show the “All the City’s a Stage Episode” to help celebrate so many impressive stage works opening and closing across the Crescent City, which included the openings of:

* “Jelly’s Last Jam” at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. (Read the glowing review by Ted Mahne.)
* “A Few Good Men” at Delgado Community College. (Read my feature preview.)
* “Niagara Falls” at The Theatre at St. Claude
* “On an Average Day” at the Happyland Theater

… as well as the concluding performances of …

* “Billy Elliot” at Rivertown Theaters, including an added Sunday show
* “Disney’s The Lion King,” which I caught Thursday, at the Saenger Theatre
* “Gomela” which we discussed last week, at Ashé Powerhouse Theater
* “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
* … and ArtSpot Productions’ “Sea of Common Catastrophe” at UNO

On “PopSmart NOLA,” we welcomed:

Michael Aaron Santos, who stars as Col. Jessup, speaker of the infamous “You can’t handle the truth” speech in “A Few Good Men,” which is being staged at Delgado Community College’s Timothy Baker Theater and runs through Feb. 11. For more information, visit www.nolaproject.com.

Kathy Randels and Sean LaRocca of ArtSpot Productions, and “Sea of Common Catastrophe“ — which Gambit’s Will Coviello described as “an abstract, figurative work about New Orleans and some of its inhabitants, who are drawn to the sea and affected by it.” While the show closed Saturday, we had Kathy and Sean discuss the production for a final push, and they favored us with a song from the show.

Damien Moses, cast member of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the Tony Award-winning musical about the life of legendary New Orleans pianist, bandleader and composer Jelly Roll Morton. This is, amazingly, the New Orleans premiere of this work, which, among other things, delivered star Gregory Hines his lone Tony Award. Damien A. Moses is a New Orleans native. His portrayal of Hedley in “Seven Guitars”, directed by Tommye Myricke, afforded him the privilege to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. as an Irene Ryan recipient. His most notable performance as Mister in “The Color Purple The Musical” at Anthony Bean Community Theater, earned him a Big Easy Award nomination. The show runs at Le Petit Theatre through Feb. 12. For more information visit http://www.lepetittheatre.com/.

Alex Rawls of My Spilt Milk paid us a return visit to to help break down the recently announced lineups for the French Quarter Festival and of course the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. My Spilt Milk covers the music and culture in New Orleans. Alex has written for almost every New Orleans-based publication (including our years together at Gambit-then-Weekly), as well as Rolling Stone, Spin and USA Today — AND he guest-edited The Oxford American’s Louisiana music issue. He’s also done some really fascinating work examining the booking choices at Jazz Fest, is here to discuss their recently announced lineup as well as that of the French Quarter Festival, which precedes Jazz Fest this spring.

That’s “PopSmart NOLA” for this week. I want to again thank our guests — Michael Aaron Santos from “A Few Good Men,” Kathy Randels from ArtSpot Productions and “Sea of Common Catastrophe,” Damien Moses from “Jelly’s Last Jam” and Alex Rawls of My Spilt Milk.

Stay tuned for next week’s episode, which include a focus on the upcoming James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which hits New Orleans, and this show will include some really exciting guests. Stay tuned on that.

Want to remind everyone that if you like what you hear on “PopSmart NOLA,” we’re here every Saturday from 3-4 p.m. on WHIV (102.3 FM). You can listen to the archived, podcast version of the show on my SoundCloud account, “dlsnola.” Also, you can visit the website at popsmartnola.com, and like our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram at “@popsmartnola” and I’m yammering away on Twitter at @dlsnola504.

Also, if you like our show, we’d love your support in the form of underwriting; email me at dlsnola@gmail.com for more info.

Thanks again for joining us, y’all. For “PopSmart NOLA,” I’m David Lee Simmons, reminding everyone to keep the intelligent discussion going.

Michael Aaron Santos, “A Few Good Men” and how to handle the truth

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WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Jan. 26-Feb. 12; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives … You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”

Michael Aaron Santos has the juiciest monologue fueled by the sharpest rebuke of the 2016-2017 New Orleans theater season. Almost by extension, then, he carries the heaviest burden as well, given its history. Like so many stage moments, it’s from a movie that the monologue gets its currency, with Jack Nicholson solidifying its place in cinema history as a part of Rob Reiner’s Academy Award-winning 1992 film adaptation of “A Few Good Men.”

And like so many others, the stage version is a different animal, as The NOLA Project hopes to prove this weekend when it opens the military drama at Delgado Community College. (The premiere is Thursday, Jan. 26.) Santos, a NOLA Project ensemble member, will play Col. Nathan Jessup opposite Artistic Director A.J. Allegra as Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Cecile Monteyne as Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway.

The play follows the defense by a callow Naval attorney of two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine while stationed at Guantanamo Bay, and the suspicion that the trial is part of a cover-up to protect Jessup, a rising star in the military. Kaffee must wrestle with one of the other members of his legal team, Galloway, who, along with the memory of his famous father, serve as his conscience.

There’s no problem with Jessup’s conscience, who sees the late Marine as collateral damage in a continual war to protect his country. The “You can’t handle the truth” serves to explains Jessup’s motivations and actions, which, in the hands of the legendary Nicholson, are as wrongheaded as they are calculated.

Santos is a study in contrasts to Nicholson; Santos is tall and lanky, where Nicholson was short and stocky. In the rehearsal I got to witness earlier in the week, Santos offers his own version of Jessup, foul-mouthed but charming but almost heartfelt in his self-defense. Santos is well aware of the ground he’s covering here.

“When you break it down, you kind of have this image of it from the movie,” Santos said during a break, as captured in the video posted here. “But then you try to learn the monologue and looking at each sentence and each phrase in there, and applying meaning in it. One that struck me is the irony in it — that here is someone who is speaking so vehemently and passionately about something he believes in. And he even calls Kaffee blind.

“But he’s sort of blinded by his own sense of the truth, his own sense of the code that can’t be broken, or that is the right path, so to speak. He has found the truth, the right path in life, and everybody else needs to get in line and follow him, or at least get out of the way. I find a little bit of sympathy towards him … .”


A.J. Allegra and Cecile Monteyne. (Photo by John Barrois)

Needless to say, Santos will be working slightly against the legacy of one of Nicholson’s career-defining roles — and an Academy Award-nominated one, at that. In interviews, both director Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise spoke of Nicholson’s commitment to the role. Nicholson stuck around the set after he’d shot the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue, happy to repeat the line some 40-50 times while they filmed different reaction shots.

“We spent the entire day just shooting that speech,” Sorkin said on the Jimmy Kimmel show. “There came a time when he didn’t need to be there anymore because we’re doing coverage of other people. The director Rob Reiner said, ‘Jack you don’t have to keep doing this three-page speech.’ He said, ‘Nah, I just love to act,’ and he kept doing it all day and all night.

“There’s nothing like having your first movie experience be with Jack Nicholson.”

Cruise, who spent the first half of his career seeking out roles set opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, marveled at his technique: Playing the scene out, Col. Jessup as a written character is overpowering, so Jack needed to give him that power,” he told GQ magazine’s David Bailey. “But he understands the camera in such a manner that the power had to come from stillness. I could see the motions becoming less and less.”

So much about “A Few Good Men” is about the lines we draw as we try balance our duties to uniform, country and our own, sometimes-elusive sense of right and wrong. The defense’s main argument is one that has been heard over the years, and resonates in everything from the Holocaust to Vietnam War: They were only following orders.

Counter-balancing that is Aaron Sorkin’s time-honored examination smart professional men at work, and how the professional space becomes intertwined with their own certitude. In a New Yorker essay that serves as a more modern critique of Sorkin’s more recent work (and actions outside that work), writer Nathan Heller perfectly encapsulates Sorkin’s views on whether the ends justify the means, and keys in on the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue:

That it has become perhaps the best-known paragraph of his career is unfair … it is often taken as realpolitik fact. Though Jessup is a villain, after all, he acknowledges his ugly amorality. He believes instead in the essential righteousness of what he does, the greater good of his hard, unrelenting work. This willingness to ride over small decencies for a big cause is a regular theme in Sorkin’s writing, from “The West Wing” to “The Social Network” (tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”), and it underscores a basic tenet of the universe he conjures: that messiness of process can bear majestic results.

Heller comes back to Sorkin’s career later in the piece, concluding:

Onscreen, repeatedly, he’s led us through the boiler room of Camelot: here are the young, fast-talking, best-and-brightest types, perennially at one another’s throats, maybe a little Machiavellian, but still good. Their hearts are in the right place—that’s the difference between these people and the bad guys—and they’re looking out for normal folks like you. Sorkin is a creative child of the eighties, which is to say that he came of age at a moment when the possibilities of institutional ascent, governmental and otherwise, were being remade after a period of shame and disappointment. He’s the liberal answer to Tom Clancy, celebrating the hidden mechanics of power not as a source of perfidy but as a site of grace.

Santos’ sympathy for Jessup lies in Sorkin’s consistent theme that men of purported valor believe they’re doing the right thing. Indeed, one of the best lines of the monologue is inspired by the notion that the older, wiser, battle-tested Jessup sees through Kaffee’s inexperience and flippant nature: “[D]eep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline.”


(Photo by John Barrois)

As someone who’s developed closer personal relationships with those in the military after the movie’s 1992 release (including my own brother and sister-in-law in the process of becoming colonels themselves), I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for that contrast. Jessup’s saying, in part, that his strength must stand in sharper contrast to us weaker civilians — that, after failed misadventures in Korea and Vietnam, we don’t have the stomach for war even when it’s necessary. Not because we’re pacifists, necessarily; because we don’t have the moral courage, but we’re happy to let others shoulder this heavy burden and mock them as they do it.

As Santos notes, “The one line that he repeats throughout the play is saving lives, the phrase of ‘saving lives.’ I think that’s very important to him. But it’s the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, sometimes.”

Perhaps Jessup, as Santos muses, is a relic who, like George “Blood and Guts” Patton before him, had no problem with the notion of cannon fodder.

“I told (director Jason Kirkpatrick) from the very beginning, he reminds me of a Spartan warrior dropped in the middle of an Athenean assembly,” Santos says. “There’s just this culture divide that is going to take years of working through it to get anywhere with it. Two cultures that are going to have generational gaps and slowly hopefully come to some kind of co-exist.”

With that kind of insight, it’s pretty safe to say that, as he approaches Thursday’s curtain call, and a chance to face a major legacy, Michael Aaron Santos is ready to handle the truth.

“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM), Ep. 13: “Arts as Action” edition, with Dana Embree, Stephanie V. McKee & Sunni Patterson, and Paul Oswell & Benjamin Hoffman

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In response to Friday’s (Jan. 20) inauguration, we wanted to take a look at artistic and creative instruction as a response to political and cultural change. Throughout New Orleans and the rest of the country, we’ve seen creative people finding their own voice in terms of protest and action. There’s the New Orleans version of the Women’s March on Washington and the March for Revolution over in Faubourg Marigny. There was Friday’s J20Nola: Anti Trump Inauguration Rally & March. And plenty of other shows that definitely will infuse the night with plenty of protest themes.

So I welcomed a range of guests to this, our “Arts as Action Episode,” to discuss their works — sometimes directly related to the topic, or just because their current work served as a nice jumping-off point.

To that end, we welcomed as our guests:

Director Stephanie V. McKee and poet Sunni Patterson, two of the creative forces behind Junebug Productions’ current show, “Gomela/to return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue,” which opened this weekend over at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. (Sunni’s work, “Black Back,” opens the show, and I’ve got a video of the entire poem in this post.

Dana Marie Embree, longtime New Orleans-based costume designer for stage and screen and inspirational figure in the very popular, very creative, very artistic and often politically satirical Krewe of ‘tit Rex — which rolls, by the way, on Saturday, Feb. 18. (You can see it if you can crouch low enough.) I pre-recorded our interview so Dana could participate in today’s Women’s March New Orleans.

Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman, co-producers of the weekly “Local Uproar” comedy show at the AllWays Lounge. On Saturday they welcomed Andrew Healan, host of “WHAT A JOKE,” a national comedy festival taking place in 30-plus cities on inauguration weekend to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union — as part of Local Uproar’s weekly show.

SEGMENT ONE: Dana Marie Embree

Dana Marie Embree has parlayed her love of history and dress up into a career, having over 30 years of experience in styling and design for New Orleans, film and television — including costume design credit on several independent films. Embree also studied draping, pattern-making, design techniques at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NY. She reproduces historic costume and fantasy fashion for film and personal clientele. She’s also familiar to many in New Orleans’ cultural community through her work with the Krewe of ’tit Rex, which marches this Carnival season on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 5 p.m. from the St. Roch neighborhood into Faubourg Marigny. Learn more about her work at http://www.danamarieembree.com.

I met with Dana in her Mid-City home, and I asked her to place the election of Donald Trump into her own personal historical context.

Our next guests are two of the principals behind a very cool new performance by Junebug Productions — director Stephanie V. McKee and poet Sunni Patterson. They opened their new production, “Gomela/to return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue” over at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Thursday and it runs through Jan. 29. It’s an amazing combination of dance, spoken word and music.

Stephanie V. McKee is the executive artistic director of Junebug Productions. She’s a performer, choreographer, educator, facilitator and cultural organizer born in Picayune, Mississippi and raised in New Orleans. She is the founder of Moving Stories Dance Project, an organization committed to dance education that provides opportunities for dancers and choreographers to showcase their talents. In 2007, she was awarded The Academy of Educational Development/New Voices Fellowship, an award for emerging leaders. For the past 20 years Ms. McKee has been involved with Junebug Productions as an artist and educator. Most recently she served as Associate Artistic Director of the first annual Homecoming Project 2011, a place-based performance project that addresses the Right of Return and what home means to communities in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Sunni Patterson hails from New Orleans, and draws upon her local origins, as well as her holistic view on life, to shape her art. She has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, performed at major spoken word venues throughout the country, and is a certified instructor of Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Please, please, please watch the video I shot of her reciting her poem, “Black Back” in the preview post I did for PopSmartNOLA.com

Now, I already posted a podcast interview with them on PopSmartNOLA.com that focused more heavily on the show itself, and that post also includes that video of Sunni Patterson and her poem. But for this show, I wanted to focus the conversation more specifically about how artists like McKee (who speaks first here) and Patterson respond creatively under political circumstances like these.

For our final segment for this, I wanted to hopefully end things with a chuckle. And so I welcomed:

Paul Oswell, a New Orleans-based writer, journalist and comedian. He writes for The Guardian US and co-produces two weekly comedy showcases in New Orleans: “Local Uproar” at the AllWays Lounge and “Night Church” at Sidney’s Saloon.

Benjamin Hoffman, a comedian in New Orleans who co-hosts and produces two weekly showcases, Night Church and Local Uproar. Most consider him a sex symbol.

(LEARN MORE: 16 Comedians on the Role of Comedy During a Trump Administration/Vulture)

Together they welcomed Andrew Healan and the touring “What a Joke” comedy festival Saturday the AllWays Lounge, benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union.

(LEARN MORE: Comic Hero: Why Donald Trump’s Candid Rhetoric Resonates With Supporters Listen)

We also got a chance to feature Margie Perez and her new CD, “Love Is All,” which she will feature at her show tonight (Sunday, Jan. 22) at d.b.a. Check it out at the end of the show, and thanks, Margie!

Last week, I introduced a new segment on “PopSmart NOLA,” and I call it “Relevant Link,” in which I share an interesting story I’ve come across over the past week. I know it’s only a week old, but this week I’d like to divert a little in the interpretation of the title segment and direct you to a link to take action:

Quoting here from an email I received Thursday from the Arts Council of New Orleans: “On the eve of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, The Hill newspaper reported that Trump Transition Team staff intend to recommend that the President-elect eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This decades-old proposal from the politically conservative Heritage Foundation and House Republican Study Committee is expected to be included in this year’s Congressional House Budget Resolution, as it has in previous years. However, it would be much more serious if it were also proposed by the Trump Administration. Legislative and executive branch action will start moving very quickly now. We need everyone to be prepared, organized, and educated about what’s at stake. Please help us recruit more free Arts Action Fund members, spread the word, and raise some money to support our grassroots activities. The Arts Action Fund will continue sending important updates to you.”

You can take the following four steps, which include links! (Yea, links.)

  1. Share this page with your personal network. Ask at least five of your friends to join the Arts Action Fund for FREE.
  2. Post onFacebook and Twitter to help rally national support to save the NEA. There is strength in numbers and your social media friends can help.
  3. Contribute to the Arts Action Fund to help fund our grassroots advocacy campaign to keep the arts alive.
  4. Register for the Arts Advocacy Dayconference on Capitol Hill on March 20-21, 2017.

OK, I lied. I did have a relevant link. For those intrigued by the Shen Yun performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater this weekend, I offer this in-depth look at the politics (and seemingly cult-like background) of the New York-based performance troupe — courtesy the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, with this excerpt:

Falun Dafa, often used interchangeably with the term Falun Gong, is the organizational structure behind the practice. Practitioners bristle at being called a cult. But some of their communication strategies carry a strong whiff of cult-like control issues, including avoidance of media requests to explain their side (attempts to reach Shen Yun for this story were unanswered), stringent policing of images that forced the use of a five-year-old Associated Press photo to accompany this story, vague platitudes in lieu of specific descriptions and the assertion that their made-in-America show is a more authentic ambassador of “5,000 years of Chinese culture” than cultural-entertainment exports actually based in China. “The thing that irritates Chinese people everywhere is the specious claim that they’re representing traditional culture,” Ownby said. “They don’t, but they don’t do any harm. I grew up among seven Baptists, and they had strange beliefs, too.”

Interesting stuff. Check out the Relevant Link here.

I want to remind everyone that if you like what you hear on “PopSmart NOLA,” we’re here every Saturday from 3-4 p.m. on WHIV (102.3 FM). You can listen to the archived, podcast version of the show on my SoundCloud account, “dlsnola.” Also, you can visit the website at popsmartnola.com, and like our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram at “@popsmartnola” and I’m yammering away on Twitter at @dlsnola504.

Also, if you like our show, we’d love your support in the form of underwriting; email me at dlsnola@gmail.com for more info.

Thanks again for joining us, y’all. For “PopSmart NOLA,” I’m David Lee Simmons, reminding everyone to keep the intelligent discussion going.

BONUS: Check out Stephanie V. McKee and Sunni Patterson discussing “Gomela” above, and Sunni reciting “Back Black” below!)