“I was two houses away in either direction, and then they stopped. It’s like they knew I was coming.”
This is his first summer without his wife. She passed away last year right around Labor Day, and the two of them always enjoyed summers together. They’d be at the beach almost every day — her with a paperback and him lying on his back, refusing to put on sunscreen.
“You can’t get a good night’s sleep.”
He hasn’t been to the beach this summer. He hasn’t done a lot of things he used to do with his wife since she’s been gone. Instead, he’s been chasing fireworks.
“It started before Memorial Day. I live around all these other houses. Where are they setting them off? Nowhere safe. You can’t be doing it anywhere safe, and these are big fireworks. These are the kind they have the professionals set off, and they’re going off in neighborhoods all night long and it’s been going on for months.”
He can’t sleep. He’s never been a heavy sleeper, but without his wife next to him, he finds that the littlest thing can wake him up. Hours of fireworks every night meant that he wasn’t getting to sleep until nearly dawn, and he found his patterns changing. Suddenly he was nocturnal, and since he was up, he decided to do some detective work.
“The police are useless, but you already know that. I told them what was going on and they told me they couldn’t find the source of where the fireworks were coming from. I told them they should drive around and do some police work, and they didn’t like hearing that. I got in my car and I did their job for them, but some nights there were fireworks coming in all these different directions and it got to be too much.”
His wife used to tease him for being nosey. He was always the one looking out the windows at the neighbors and speculating on why somebody’s blinds were closed in the middle of the day or why the guy next door was digging a hole in his yard early in the morning. (It turned out they were living near a night shift nurse and the man digging the hole was doing some kind of check on the water level.) It didn’t satisfy his curiosity when it came to odd behavior, and nothing seems odder than setting off colorful bombs in the middle of Providence on a non-holiday weeknight.
“I wasn’t planning on being out every night, but it makes you so mad listening to people who have no respect for those of us who want peace and quiet. What about veterans? My brother’s a veteran and he’s sleeping in his basement now, because he can’t hear them so much down there.”
His wife left behind their two kids and a dog. A small dog. Part terrier, part mutt. It goes wild whenever the sparklers light the sky.
“Her name’s Josie. Josie used to go out of her mind every July 4th and my wife would hold her and calm her down. Now I have to do it. I’m a 73-year-old man cradling this little dog like it’s a baby and she’s whimpering the whole time. Now I put her in the downstairs closet in my office where she wasn’t allowed to go before, but I put her dog bed in there, and if I close the door — I make it nice and comfortable, she loves it in there, it’s a big closet — and you can’t hear anything in there. She likes it, and I take her out when they stop, and then she comes upstairs and sleeps at the foot of the bed. I didn’t let her do that before either, but she misses my wife, so I let her do what she wants.”
When asked whether he thinks the fireworks are a government plot to wear down protestors or just the result of suppliers pawning off their wares to the general population now that there aren’t any official fireworks displays in most parts of the country, he shrugs it all off with a–
“I don’t give a flying f____ what it is. I just want it to stop.”
Now, it’s the day after the 4th, and I call him to ask if it’s been any better tonight. He tells me he only heard one small bang, and after that nothing. He didn’t bother getting in his car and doing his rounds. Tonight, he stayed at home, watched a movie, and made himself dinner. Meanwhile, outside, it’s quiet.
“I’m not sure what to do now. Can’t go to the beach. Can’t go anywhere. I might go out driving after I get off the phone with you. I don’t know where I’ll go, but I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been driving all around, and you get in the habit of going down the same streets and driving by the same houses. You feel like you’re keeping an eye on things.”
I asked him if he ever saw the fireworks while he was driving around.
“Oh yeah, I saw a lot. They’re nice to look at. They make too much noise, but they’re nice to look at it. One night there were so many going off, I stopped the car and I just watched. I was pissed off at how loud it was, but I liked looking up at it. To think of all those people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing setting off all of that, all by themselves. I must have sat there and watched for 20 minutes and then I went home. You could hear it even after you couldn’t see it anymore. That was the thing. Some nights it was all over the sky, and some nights you couldn’t see a damn thing. But you could always hear it.”
Over the phone, Josie the dog starts barking, and he tells me he better get her some dinner or she’ll wake the neighbors.
Something tells me that, lately, it would take a lot more than that.
In Providence: I was here until I wasn’t
She left Providence after graduating, having seen nothing of the city.
“I really didn’t. Now I see that. I didn’t see it before, because I thought that was the nature of being in school. That you just don’t see very much of where you are. I saw campus. I went to Brown, and I stayed in this very small circle of– this small geographic circle, and I– I don’t even think I ever went downtown to be totally honest with you. And, you know, I would go home. I come from New York. I lived in New Jersey, but I would go home some weekends, and go into the city, and I wasn’t scared. It wasn’t like I was scared to go exploring. I just didn’t do that in Providence. It never occurred to me to do that.”
About halfway through the month of April, she moved back to Providence after a job offer came up that would put her right back in her old stomping grounds on the East Side. It was then that she realized how much of Providence she had been missing.
“Every day I discover a new thing. Because I go on drives. I’m not discovering them when they’re open. That’s the sad part about it. I go on drives and I drive by a place and I go, ‘That place looks fun!’ and then I look it up online and find out they might not be opening again. You know, that’s very sad, because why am I finding out about all these places now and not when I lived here? I didn’t have a car when I was here before, but it’s a small city. Why didn’t I want to see what it had to offer? Why wasn’t I encouraged to do that?”
Building on that point, I ask her if the opposite might be true. Did she ever feel discouraged from engaging with the city?
“Just like everything else, it’s cultural. It’s ingrained. I didn’t have someone–No, I can’t say. I can’t say I wasn’t outright told not to go check out the city, because I was told that. I got an email my freshman year from the college telling me– uh, telling me that I needed to be careful, because students get robbed — that it happens a lot. I wish I still had the email, but it made Providence sound like the scariest place, and at the same time, the email didn’t address the fact that the campus is in Providence and there’s no– you know, there’s no wall around campus. Um, I know I got that email and it did affect me thinking that– It didn’t sit right with me, but then I didn’t end up going very far out after that, because it was just easier to remain insular. I won’t try to pass the blame onto the college, but I wasn’t pushed to get involved in the community or the greater Providence community or beyond that. That is true.”
I tell her that I once dated a guy who went to Brown when I was at another college in the area, and there seemed to be a hesitation in interacting with the rest of the city out of some kind of fear. I tried to be understanding of it, until that same boyfriend went to Egypt on Spring Break. Not that Egypt is a place nobody should visit, but if a trip like that doesn’t intimidate you, why would you be nervous to walk down College Hill?
“Looking at it now as a woman who’s also a Black woman and who’s learning– I think I’m more aware now of what kind of messaging the people around me are receiving, the school and– and other schools. Not just in Providence, it’s not just Providence.”
That’s when I point out that you do have colleges in some towns where every bar and restaurant and store is full all the time as a result of having that college there, but for some reason, Providence — even with multiple colleges and comparatively small square footage — doesn’t seem to benefit.
“Right now we’re talking about how– You say encouragement and discouragement and I think that’s what it’s about. That’s the next conversation. Or one of the next to have. The same way we say that it’s not enough to not be racist, you have to be anti-racist. It’s not enough to not stand in the way of engaging with the community and the people who live in that community. You have to push for that. You have to say to students and faculty and staff: Are you patronizing local restaurants? Are you shopping local? Are you involved in local groups? Going out and volunteering for local organizations? What are you giving to the city? Because these schools get so much out of the cities they’re in. What are they giving back? Not just economically, but to the fabric. To the fabric of the place. How does that look?”
She’s currently making a list of all the places she wants to check out, but every so often, she has to cross off a name of a business that won’t be returning.
“I wish I had got here sooner, but it’s weird, because I was here, right? I was here for years and I wasn’t here. I wasn’t here until I was. I think about that all the time.”
Maybe it’s something we all need to think about as we enter the next phase of normal.
What kind of city do we want to live in and what are we all doing to contribute to that vision while we’re all still here?
Navigation and Innovation: A conversation with Francis Parra
Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important that we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful to speak with Francis Parra this week. Parra is the founder and artistic director of Teatro ECAS, Rhode Island’s leading Latino theater that’s been operating since 1997 in Providence.
Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?
Francis Parra: Considering everything that is happening in the world, I am okay. There are so many people suffering as a result of this pandemic, the economy is struggling and long-standing racial inequities have once again raised painful issues that need to be addressed right away. So many people have lost loved ones. My family has not been directly impacted, but we have lost friends, and watching people go through that is very difficult. The theater has been closed for months now, so there’s that. It has made me think a lot about being at peace with the world and with myself.
KB: Can you talk a little bit about the projects that were affected by the shutdown and whether you plan to bring them back once it’s safe to do so?
FP: Teatro ECAS closed on March 13, causing us to suspend the two remaining plays in our season: La Dama Duende (The Phantom Lady), a classic Spanish masterpiece by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, and the contemporary comedy Soltero, Casado, Viudo y Divorciado (Single, Married, Widowed and Divorced), by Roman Sarmentero. We were really looking forward to ending the season with these two remarkable and very different stagings.
KB: I know that you recently hosted a virtual conversation about racism and theater with Dominican playwright and sociologist Haffe Serulle. Do you plan on having further conversations on your social media platforms?
FP: Yes! We started a virtual interview series called ECAS en Casa (ECAS at Home) featuring prominent Latin American theater leaders. Serulle gave a fascinating exposition about the history of racism in theater and answered more than a dozen questions from people watching on Facebook Live. This past week, we had a great conversation with Cuban actor Francisco Gattorno, who is a renowned theater, television and film star and who was a leading Latin American soap opera star for more than two decades. Our next guest for ECAS at Home will be Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a director out of New York who adapted and directed Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as a very successful play in Manhattan’s Repertorio Español theater.
KB: How much of you work do you think could be moved online as we see more and more theaters pushing back their reopening dates? Is expanding your digital offerings something you’re interested in?
FP: We are being innovative under the circumstances. We have developed a series of dramatic readings that will be broadcast via radio and online simultaneously. The first will be La Lupe, Exito y Gloria, a musical play that I wrote about a very famous Latin singer from the 1970s. The reading will also feature vocal and musical performances by the very talented singer Violeta Cruz del Valle and singer-songwriter Czesare Santana. We have also moved our youth theater classes online and have had a lot of success with those. However, there is no substitute for being in a room full of creative energy watching a live performance. So, we are working on a variety of projects to develop virtual performances as well as prepare for a future where live performances will be possible, despite serious restrictions to conform with social distancing and other measures.
KB: How is Teatro ECAS doing financially while not doing in-person programming?
FP: Teatro ECAS is suffering due to loss of earned revenues, such as ticket sales and advertising. However, we have been nimble and creative and are taking some of our shows to the airwaves to Radio Drama and Radio Comedy thanks to longtime supporters, Power 102.1 FM Southern New England’s Spanish language radio. We are able to give our actors opportunities to continue to work with us. Both La Lupe, Exito y Gloria and Tributo a Tres Patines will be on the air shortly. Our educational programs, Improving Young Lives Through the Arts in Providence/Pawtucket (ILAP) continue first through a Virtual ILAP and a six-week two sessions of Summer ILAP.
Many of our donors and funding partners have come to the rescue so that these educational programs can remain free. We thank the NEA, the Cares Act, PPP, RISCA, The Rhode Island Foundation, the City of Providence, the Champlin Foundation, and many others for their financial help.
KB: What are your own feelings about being inside a theater again? Do you worry for yourself and the other artists you work with?
FP: It’s painful to walk into an empty theater that routinely welcomes 250 people every week yet has been closed for the past four months. Every day I hear from actors, patrons, volunteers and others and they always greet me with the same question: When will Teatro ECAS reopen? During the height of the pandemic, we held a weekly get-together on Zoom for our actors and collaborators, and I think that served as a valuable outlet for us all. We remain in constant contact over text messages and social media, and that has kept our spirits high and looking forward to getting back on stage whether in person or virtually.
KB: Can you talk about the community impact of not having Teatro ECAS available to audiences right now? I know your theater is such a vital part of the lives of those who go to see your shows. Have you heard from them as all of this has been transpiring?
FP: We like to say that Teatro ECAS tells stories that aren’t being told anywhere else. We have developed a very strong following in the community, from the children and teens who take part in our education programming to senior citizens who have their own dedicated performances of our plays. We also have a growing number of schools that are interested in learning more about the many facts of Latinx cultural expression through theater. Last year we started offering English-language super-titles so that non-Spanish speaking patrons could follow along, and this helped expand our audience even more. We have heard loud and clear from the public that Teatro ECAS is missed and that people are anxious to catch one of our performances. This is very gratifying, yet it also represents a serious responsibility that we must continue to fulfill as we navigate the “new” normal.
KB: Theaters all over the country are at this reckoning point where they’re being asked to consider who they want to be when they return. Have you had those organizational identity discussions as well? How much thought have you given to what kind of work you want to make on the other side of this crisis, and how different is it from the work you’d been doing before if at all?
FP: We’re having a lot of thoughtful conversations internally, with our patrons and with our peers in the greater creative community. However, it’s very difficult to predict the future of live performances in the COVID-19 era for an intimate, 50-seat community theater. Social distancing requirements effectively reduce our capacity to a negligible, unsustainable number. If there’s a second surge, this could adversely impact people’s willingness to attend events where they are in close proximity to strangers. We are making every effort to be innovative, but it certainly is not easy. We have moved our classes and some programming onto the cloud, with success, yet the fundamental questions over live in-person performances remain unanswered.
KB: As an artist, how do you keep yourself creatively active during this time?
FP: I like to meditate in the morning and stay very active both physically and mentally. This is how I cope with everything that is happening now. I really enjoy nature and try to make the most of it at every opportunity, even if only by sitting outside and gazing at the sky for a moment. I also find that the music of Nina Simone sparks a lot of emotion and creativity in me. I recently saw the powerful James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and it really had an impact on me. It helped me think a lot about how the work being done at Teatro ECAS can serve as a catalyst to improve race relations and, more importantly, to teach future generations to treat everyone with dignity, respect and empathy.
KB: How can people help ECAS? Do you have a donation link and other ways for them to support you?
FP: If you would like to help pay for the free educational programs, or support actor salaries in “Radio Drama” or “ECAS en Casa,” please use the link here: teatroecas.org/support
In Providence: The Pool
“I don’t know how we did it when there were all five of them in the house, but I don’t remember it feeling this tight. Then again, they were smaller, so that might be it. You might be writing about a murder when all this is over. I just want to tell you that in case you want some nice Father’s Day story. You might not get that. Just letting you know now.”
The five children are all in their 20s, and when the pandemic struck, all were either furloughed or laid off. Three were living in New York City, one was in Washington, and the third was still nearby, but was at the end of her lease. The plan was not to have all of them move back home, but that’s how it shook out.
“We didn’t talk about it. They’ve always been welcome home if they need to come back. There’s usually at least one of them living here in between jobs or what have you. I wasn’t surprised when the first two called and said they were coming home, but then one day I looked up, and one was asking me where their box of clothes was from so many years ago and I turned to my wife as if to say, ‘Are they all back?’ and she just said something under her breath and walked away. We love the kids, but five is a lot, and they’re all grown now, and that’s a lot of grown-up people for a small house and one bathroom.”
A small house with one bathroom near Congress Avenue has one thing going for it — a nice backyard.
“When we bought the house, that was the thing we couldn’t believe. The yard was so big! Nobody we knew had a yard like that. We both grew up–my wife’s family was from Macon, Georgia. She grew up with nothing. Nowhere to play, because the house where she grew up had other houses all around it. I grew up near Atwells and we had a yard, but it wasn’t much. I saw this house and I liked the yard, because that meant the kids would have somewhere to play, and I think it was my father who told me we could put a pool in if we wanted to, and I liked that idea, and then it didn’t come to be, for what reason I can’t tell you, other than time goes by pretty quick, but the kids still loved the yard, but every summer, they would ask about the pool and I’d say we’d get to it one day, but we did not.”
But with warm weather and unexpected reunions comes … projects.
“It was my daughter — my middle daughter — she came up with the idea of doing the pool. I told her to have it, but my kids, you know, they’re good kids. I’ve never seen them do anything physical though. That’s not how they are. They’re very artistic kids. They’re smart, but they’re not the roll-up-your-sleeves type of people. For them to take on building a pool in the backyard– I … I was glad they had a reason not to be stuck inside. Let me put it to you that way. You want to spend more time outside? Sounds good to me.”
I’ve been checking in ever since one of his children told me I might be interested in writing a piece about five siblings building a pool at their parents’ house. The goal was to have it done by Memorial Day, but that deadline quickly came and went.
“You can’t just go building a pool. That’s the whole thing. I don’t know if they needed permits or anything like that. I didn’t ask. I thought it was important that they do this together, and, uh, I also didn’t have any interest in throwing my back out and having to go to the hospital in the middle of all this craziness. I watched from the window and I liked what I saw, but I still didn’t think it was getting done anytime soon.”
Little did he know, their new deadline was one they had no plans on whizzing by — and it was this past Sunday.
“We got you a Father’s Day gift.”
The kids had ordered that the curtains at the back of the house be closed for a week while they worked. He and his wife were forbidden from going into the backyard, but they could hear what sounded like tools and the occasional heated argument.
“I wanted to spend the day sitting in my yard relaxing and I told them that I wanted my yard back Sunday morning, first thing, and it better not look a mess. Sunday morning comes, and they’re already up. I go in my backyard, and there it is–”
A brand new pool.
“They looked up– ‘This is how you do this part and this is how you do that part’ on the Internet, and I always keep tools down in the basement. They didn’t– They had pretty much everything they needed, but my son had to borrow some extra shovels, and once the stores started opening, they could get the cement and the liner and all that. It’s a nice little pool. I’ve seen better, I won’t lie to you, but it’s not bad when you think about the fact that these kids never so much as fixed a pipe in their lives.”
He sent me a photo, and he’s right–
It’s a nice little pool.
But what’s even nicer are the five kids standing in front of it with their dad.
If I’m being honest, they look exhausted. Sweaty. Sunburned.
They’re also smiling the smile of a family that’s come together for a common cause. I asked the middle daughter what it was like building a pool from scratch.
“I think if we had known what was going to go into this, we never would have done it. It was– It was not a fun experience. But, um, the point wasn’t to have fun. It was to give us all something to do and give something back to my mom and dad, because a lot of parents wouldn’t have been so nice about having all their kids come home and stay with them for months, and they’re always here for us. Always. I think they worry about us and whether we can take care of ourselves, and I think having to come home didn’t really help that idea that– Yeah, we’ll be okay. We’re having a hard time right now like everybody, but we’ll be okay. And to be able to do this, I think, is our way of saying– Look what we can do. That’s why we kept going even when my brother almost cut his hand off.”
You can see in the photo that her brother’s hand is bandaged, and it looks as though at least two of the other siblings are a bit banged up as well, but their father didn’t bring any of that up when they presented him with his Father’s Day gift.
“I told you they had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole pool caves in one day after they’re gone. That’ll be how I die. Buried alive in the pool my kids built me. The shape’s all wrong too. Can you see it in the picture? It’s supposed to be a rectangle, but the left side is slanted and then there’s a curve at the top that I don’t think they wanted there.”
There’s a pause as he’s telling me about this over the phone. In the background, I can hear what sounds like splashing.
“But that’s all right. They’re good kids. It’s been nice having them here so me and my wife can play Mom and Dad again. I don’t know when I’m going to get them all together again like this. One’s going back to New York tomorrow and another one is moving back the week after that. It was tough seeing them go the first time, but the world is so different now. I don’t know how you can keep from scaring yourself to death thinking about your kids being out there in it.”
I told him what his daughter said about wanting to build him a pool so he could see that they’d be able to take care of themselves.
“That’s all well and good, but what does it mean that the pool looks like an oil spill? I’m joking with you, Kevin. That’s nice that they don’t want me to worry. I’m always going to worry. That’s how it is when you become a father. You worry until your kids are ready to worry about you. Hopefully I don’t get there anytime soon.”
From the other end of the line, I heard people yelling.
“They’re telling me I have to go in the pool with them. You know, when they were little they would try to cook a meal for me and my wife, and we would eat it, and pretend it was delicious, and most of the time, it was the nastiest thing you ever ate in your life. But we’d pretend, because they were so proud of themselves. So I got to go in the pool. You have yourself a good day now.”
Somewhere in Providence, there’s a small house with one bathroom, two parents, five grown-up kids, and a new pool that looks like an oil spill.
Just don’t tell the kids that.
On Desperate Measures: An interview with Joseph Hayward and Victoria Casillo
As digital programming begins to explode, one playwright who is continually produced is the always omnipresent (and cost effective) William Shakespeare.
I was able to speak with two artists about an acclaimed adaptation of the Bard set in a unique environment — the Old West.
Desperate Measures is a musicalized version of Measure for Measure, and I had a chance to speak with the associate director of the Original Off-Broadway production and its most recent director, Joseph Hayward, and most recent choreographer Victoria Casillo as the show gets ready to make its way across the country.
Kevin Broccoli: How did “Desperate Measures” come into your lives?
Joseph Hayward: I was the associate director for both New York productions. Our show began at The York Theatre Company in 2017 and, after extending three times, transferred to New World Stages in 2018. The show went on to win the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Best Music and Lyrics.
I could have never anticipated the impact Desperate Measures would have on my life. Shows like this don’t come around often, but when they do, it feels like a miracle. I’m extremely grateful to Bill Castellino (original director and choreographer) for bringing me on board, and who actually introduced me to Victoria!
Victoria Casillo: I didn’t work on the original production of Desperate Measures, but I did happen to attend the opening night performance at New World Stages. I was so blown away by the show that I went back to see it a second time! It was the smartest, funniest piece of theater that I had seen in a long time, and its humor and heart really stayed with me.
A few months later, I serendipitously received a phone call asking if I would be interested in meeting Bill Castellino (director/choreographer of the original Desperate Measures). He was interviewing candidates to be his assistant choreographer for his new Off-Broadway show. I was so excited– I knew that I had to get the job! I so wanted to learn from the people who worked on Desperate Measures how to create that kind of special magic on stage. Not only was I hired for one project, but I have been lucky enough to work alongside Bill (and Joseph) for the past year and a half.
Getting the opportunity to be the choreographer for the production of Desperate Measures at Saint Michael’s Playhouse feels like a full circle moment because I will finally get to work on the piece that inspired me in such a big way. Sharing the experience with Joseph as the director — someone who was with Desperate Measures from the beginning — is very exciting and humbling.
KB: Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” seems like an interesting fit for the Western genre. Can you talk a little bit about how the elements of the source material lend themselves to it?
JH: The Wild West was dangerous, lawless and tough, which makes for a thrilling backdrop to Measure for Measure. It’s a fascinating lens to re-examine the timeless themes of this show, such as justice, judgement and God.
KB: It’s so hard for smaller shows to get attention, but it seems like this one really made an impact. What do you think helps distinguish itself?
VC: The writing of Desperate Measures truly sets the musical apart. Peter Kellogg’s book is so smart — it makes entire audiences cackle, but also causes them to think. David Friedman’s score is one that audiences walk out of the theater singing. The show isn’t based on a TV show, movie or pop star, which feels so rare this day and age. The themes of Desperate Measures – law, virtue, the idea that life itself is a gift — are so relevant to today’s culture. The show is special because it’s thoroughly entertaining, intelligent, heartwarming and topical. I really can’t do Desperate Measures justice by talking about it alone … you need to come see it!
JH: The show has the perception of being small, but the characters and themes are larger-than-life. Desperate Measures could easily be expanded with an ensemble, and I hope to do that one day. I think our audiences really respond to the writing and music. It’s exceptionally smart (it’s all in rhyming iambic pentameter!) and laugh-out-loud funny. Peter Kellogg and David Friedman created a beautiful, original show that grows more relevant by the day.
KB: Can you talk a little bit about your professional histories and how they prepared you for a show like this one?
JH: I was studying to be an actor at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, when a teacher asked if I’d like to assist her director friend on an Off-Broadway show. I said yes, and my life changed. Since then, I’ve been an associate or assistant to some extraordinary people like Bill Castellino, Ray Roderick, Christian Borle, Carol Kane, James Morgan … the list goes on (and continues to grow!). They shaped me as a director, and continue to inspire me.
VC: My work with Bill Castellino has definitely helped prepare me to do Desperate Measures. I have been lucky enough to work with him on choreography for two Off-Broadway world premieres, as well as a movie musical. He has greatly influenced the way I think about dance in terms of storytelling. Every movement in a dance sequence/musical number should clearly establish character, establish setting, or further the story. It is nice to come up with movement that is interesting to look at, but the work becomes deeply satisfying when the choreography propels the story forward. Bill is such a master at clearly telling a story through choreography, movement and stage pictures, and I am excited to bring these skills that I’ve learned from him into our production of Desperate Measures. It is important to honor Peter Kellogg and David Friedman’s story in our production at Saint Michael’s Playhouse, and I want my choreography to do just that.
KB: There are so many Shakespearean adaptations, including musicals. What do you think it is about the Bard that inspires so many artists to try remaking it in their image?
JH: Each production is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. I would never try to recreate a show, because each actor and designer is different. I love to be surprised by new ideas and always keep my mind open to new possibilities. This is what makes each production one-of-a-kind.
VC: The universal themes in many of Shakespeare’s plays are the reason that so many artists want to tell his stories over and over. Another musical that has had a huge impact on my life and career is West Side Story, which is, of course, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I have worked on six different productions of West Side, and I am always amazed that no matter where the show is done, it sells out and gets extended. This speaks to the fact that a story of unrequited love amidst two battling families is one that registers with audiences everywhere! Shakespearean stories can be told in updated ways, again and again.
KB: What would you say the most challenging elements of the show are in terms of creating and re-creating a production of it?
VC: I think the trickiest part of Desperate Measures is casting. The six characters each have challenging vocal, physical, comedic and dramatic demands. It is such a puzzle to find actors who meet these demands, and also fit together as an ensemble. For example, Johnny must believably read as Susanna’s brother; Johnny and Bella must believably read as a couple; Johnny must also have the range to belt out the end of “It’s Good to Be Alive.” It’s complicated! To my total delight, I could not have been more blown away by the cast that we found. One of the greatest joys of this entire process was watching our actors in their auditions; they came in prepared, sang the material brilliantly, physically embodied the characters and also fit into our puzzle. Both Joseph and I agree that we’ve assembled an incredibly strong ensemble!
JH: Each production is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. I would never try to recreate a show, because each actor and designer is different. I love to be surprised by new ideas, and always keep my mind open to new possibilities. This is what makes each production one-of-a-kind.
KB: Musicals are, in some ways, the ultimate artistic collaboration. Can you talk about your experience collaborating together on this piece?
VC: I think the exciting part about my collaboration with Joseph is that there is a huge sense of trust and respect between us; we’re not working from a place of ego. I have deep faith in his ideas and intellect, and I know that if he wants to make a change or try something different, it will likely make the work even better. He also really listens to me and takes in what I have to say. I revere his work ethic and his understanding of the piece. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion to him, and I also can’t wait to hear his thoughts when I have a new idea. Having this kind of trust and respect for your partner is special. Joseph also ALWAYS makes me laugh, especially when I become too serious! We work so hard, but we also laugh equally as hard. I hope this joy and humor comes through on stage.
JH: Victoria and I both had Bill Castellino as a mentor, and I think that’s why we have a very similar approach to the work. Our first dedication is to the script, and we study it intensely. We are responsible for telling this story as clearly, creatively and honestly as we can. Victoria’s notes are always very detailed and she is full of great ideas. She’s an incredible dancer and storyteller, with a wicked sense of humor.
Our first big challenge was to find the actors. This is arguably the most important part of our job, and I could not be more excited, or proud, of our cast. I get goosebumps just thinking about it!
KB: As so many artists move into the digital realm to keep producing work during the quarantine, do you think there’s something from his work that speaks to us now more than before?
VC: You know, I really think that the Desperate Measures score speaks to me more during the pandemic than ever before. I would encourage any artists who are looking for a way to connect to their emotions during quarantine to sing and dance to this music. “Life Takes You By Surprise” is definitely apropos – so many things about this situation we find ourselves in could never have been predicted, but it’s important to keep our faith. I’ve been wondering why conditions have come down so much harder on some than others during this pandemic, and it takes me back to “That’s Just How It Is.” Finally, I have been trying to remind myself that even when we feel pain and suffering, life is still a blessing. This could not be more beautifully articled than in “It’s Good to Be Alive.” More than ever, this music is relevant.
JH: Desperate Measures is about fighting to stay alive against all odds. It’s about seeing injustice in the world and wanting to change it. It’s about teamwork. It’s about love and understanding. I think these themes mean more to us now than ever before. It will be enormously cathartic and healing to be gathered in a theater again and hear this story.
KB: Desperate Measures seems like a perfect fit for regional theaters. Do you see it as being a show that has a lasting life in smaller markets?
JH: It already is! In addition to our production at St. Michael’s Playhouse, Desperate Measures will be playing The Utah Shakespeare Festival, Manoa Valley Theatre in Hawaii, The Good Theater in Portland, Maine, Clackamas Repertory Theatre in Oregon, and several others. Hopefully Rhode Island will be next! In the meantime, please tell all your friends in Vermont to visit saintmichaelsplayhouse.org
VC: YES! For one thing, the show truly is appealing to audiences of all ages – young audience members in their 20s will laugh just as hard at these jokes as will audience members in their 80s. Desperate Measures was originally done with a cast of six, so the show works well for smaller theaters. (We have an amazing cast of six for our production at Saint Michael’s Playhouse.) However, the cast size can easily be expanded to include an ensemble of nuns, salon goers and cowboys, making it a perfect fit for larger theaters. I hope that the show gets produced again and again so that others might feel a bit of the magic that I felt when I walked out of New World Stages. I know the Saint Michael’s Playhouse audiences are going to eat up this piece with our sensational cast.
In Providence: Newport Nights
“I get tired as soon as I see the mall over to the left of the highway. That’s when I feel it. Until then, I feel high as a kite. If it’s been a good night. If not, then I don’t. Then I’m happy to be home. But I’m still tired.”
Every Friday at around two in the afternoon, he gets in a car that he didn’t pay for and begins the drive to Newport.
“That’s where I do weekends. I don’t want to be in Providence for the weekends, because nothing’s happening here. It’s gotten better, but if you’re looking for rich people, you’re not going to find them here once you get to June and July. You got to go to Newport for that.”
Depending on his mood, he’ll either take the way most of us are familiar with — down to South County and over the bridge — or he’ll go up through the back roads instead. This isn’t to avoid the toll, just to mix things up a little.
“I once had a cop follow me — I shit you not, this cop followed me. He was a Providence cop — followed me all the way from Providence to right before the bridge. I said, ‘What is this man doing? He is a Providence cop. He’s not a state trooper. He can’t follow me like this. But he did. Followed me all the way. I wanted to pull over and ask, ‘Can I help you?’ I told somebody about this and they told me, ‘They can’t do that. They can’t follow you like that.’ I said, ‘Don’t you think I know that, but they did.’ All the way to right before the bridge and then turned the sirens on and I kept right on driving. I was not pulling over for a Providence cop at the Newport Bridge. I paid my money and I went over the bridge and that felt good. It felt good knowing he was back there with his sirens on and I was going over the bridge. It made Newport feel special to me and I liked going there before, and after that, I loved it.”
He likes to listen to uptempo music on the way there. Party music. Music from the ’80s and early ’90s. Music that isn’t concerned with anything but putting people in a good mood.
“That’s the music my auntie used to play at the barbecues when I was a kid. I had– She was the best looking woman, my Auntie _____. She spent all her money on clothes and makeup, and my mother would give her hell for it, because that was her little sister, and she was like a mom to her, but to me, she was Auntie ____ and I understood some things about her. I understood she didn’t work and I understood that she always had plenty of money. When you’re a kid, you don’t know how those two things can be true at the same time, and you know not to ask. I knew my auntie had boyfriends and I knew one of those boyfriends lived in a nice house in Providence and nobody in the family liked him, but I never met the man. When I was 11 or 12, my auntie stopped coming over, and when I asked where she was, nobody would tell me anything. I found out when I was older that my auntie got into a big fight with the family, because everybody wanted her to stop seeing this man, because he was married and he had children. Everybody knows who this is. There are going to be people reading this who know who this man is, and they might also know about my auntie and if they know her, they know she went missing and nobody ever saw her again. One time when I first started driving, I got on the computer and I found out where that man she was seeing lived, and I drove to his house, and I sat outside. I had just started smoking and I smoked a cigarette and I sat there. It was a nice house, but it wasn’t as nice as all that. I’ve been with guys with much nicer houses. I think about that guy’s house now and I think, ‘Shit, I hope my auntie didn’t get herself killed for a two-story piece of shit like that.’”
There are a few places he likes to stay, but one hotel in particular is his favorite. When he checks in some time between 3:00 and 3:30, he immediately goes out for a drink, then returns to his room and waits for a phone call.
“I find out which parties I’m going to that weekend — that’s what it is. I’ve been to some really nice parties. I even went to a wedding once of this famous woman that you would know and you would be surprised to hear I was invited to her wedding. It was a nice wedding. I’ve been to nicer ones, but it was nice. Usually when I get the call, I tell the person calling that I don’t have anything to wear to wherever it is they’re asking me to go, and they agree to cover expenses for me, whether it be clothes or drinks or if I need to get my hair trimmed. It all gets covered and then I show up at the parties.”
There’s something he wants me to know–
“In all the time I’ve been doing this, I think I’ve spent the night with two men. That’s it. They weren’t men requesting it either. It wasn’t part of what I usually do, which is go to parties or events with these men who need dates for these events and want to show up with me. I don’t know why they want to do that. They do tend to be older, but not always. The two men who came back to my hotel room with me — one was last year and the other was when I first started — I met them after I had done what I was there for that night, and then I met them. One was at the event, he was catering, or he worked for the caterer, and the other was working at the hotel, and when he got off work, he came up for a drink. But I’m not there to get into that kind of thing, and normally, I don’t kiss and tell, but you asked so there it is. Someone asked me about escorting, and I don’t mind the word escorting, and I don’t mind people who escort, or people who do anything, it’s just not what I do. I’m there to be on someone’s arm. I don’t know why you would pay for that, but people with money pay for all kinds of shit. They just like it. They like being able to pay for something that doesn’t even need paying for, because some of them do have wives, and some of them should be bringing their wives to these things, but they don’t want to, and I don’t want to ask them why, because if they brought their wives, I wouldn’t be there and I wouldn’t be able to stay in a nice hotel and go shopping and all those things, so I don’t ask.”
When I ask him how he started doing this, he tells me it began shortly after he dropped out of college. He was living with a friend on Laurel Avenue, and the friend was going to be attending a birthday party in Newport that weekend, but his date needed a date for another man who was going to be there, and there was money involved.
“I asked how much money and he told me and I let him know right out that I needed to know everything that was going to be expected of me if I did this. He gave me the terms and I was good with the terms, but I understood that terms really don’t mean shit if the person in charge decides to change them without telling you, but I was going to be with my friend, and that made me feel better about it. I was also two months behind on rent, and I think that made me more willing than I might have otherwise been.”
That birthday party was a five-star soiree right on the water. People left at the end of the night by hopping onto their boats and sailing away into the evening. One woman looked like the star of a popular television show, and another was a dead ringer for a supermodel who had recently been in the pages of Vogue.
“That’s who they were, I found out later. I found out that if you’re at a party like that and somebody looks like somebody, that’s who it is.”
There was good food and live music and at the end of the night, he and his friend got back into a car with not one, but two spare tires on it, and a tail pipe with a hole in it, and they drove back to their house in Providence.
“You don’t want to say Cinderella, because that’s the quickest comparison, but that’s how I felt. I was Cinderella and the ball was over and now here I was with no shoes and a busted up pumpkin going back to a house where the plumbing only worked half the time and one of the windows wouldn’t close so we had bats flying in and out at night. I’m not joking with you. Bats in and out of the house. Two hours earlier I was eating caviar. That was a night.”
A few days later, he got a call asking if he’d like to go to another event the following weekend. He had made a good impression.
“I moved out of that house two months later. No more bats.”
Now he’s booked every weekend.
Even talking to him on the phone, I can sense his charisma. He’s a beautiful man, but he also has that thing that makes you want to hear him say words just to find out how they sound when he articulates them. You want to get his opinion on things. You want to find out where he’s from and what he’s about. You want him to like you.
“But you can’t pay for that. A couple of the guys — one proposed. But a couple of them asked me to move in. A couple asked me for something serious. I don’t do that. This isn’t Pretty Woman. I’m not meeting a guy like that. I have a boyfriend right now and he treats me well and that’s all I’ll say about that. Does he know what I do? Yes, he does. He’s good with it, but he might not be one day, and if that becomes the case, we’ll talk about it, and I’ll see how I feel.”
There’s enough money in his bank account for him to give up the weekends in Newport and take a year or two to figure out what he wants to do, but he says he likes the rush of it. The adrenaline of the parties and the celebrities and the way people look at him trying to determine who he is and how he got there.
“I like the eyes on me. That’s the truth. When I have a good night, a good night is a night where I have a lot of eyes on me and a lot of people coming up to talk to me, and I meet lots of new people, and I can pretend I’m anybody I want.”
On Sunday evenings, he treats himself to a nice dinner, alone, and then he drives back to his apartment downtown.
“Last weekend and the weekend before that, I did feel tired. It’s not the same with everything going on, because these aren’t parties the way there were parties before, and I said to my friend, ‘If this is how it’s going to be all summer, I might want to do something else.’ I thought Newport would be immune from that feeling that everybody’s feeling right now, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re pretending to feel good, but it’s just pretending, and these are people who are good at pretending, but this is something where — you can’t pretend it’s not there. It’s looming. It’s looming over all of us. We’re not going to be able to keep our heads in the sand. People can feel it — on every level. People can feel that something’s coming. My friend asked to spend the night with me this weekend, and he’s been seeing me for years, and he’s never asked me for that. I told him, ‘No,’ and he didn’t seem to be too upset about it. I think he asked to see what I would say, but he didn’t care one way or the other.”
His boyfriend is taking him away this weekend, and it’ll be the first time in two years that he hasn’t made the drive to Newport. The last time was because he had a family wedding, and there was no time before that.
“It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about taking a weekend off. If I like it, I might do it more often. Put myself more in demand.”
Does that mean Providence will be seeing more of him this summer?
“If Providence is lucky, it might. I don’t know if Providence can afford me if I’m keeping it a hundred with you. Providence might need to save up its pennies.”
I tell him to enjoy his vacation, and I ask him where he’s going. He laughs a serious laugh and then asks–
“Haven’t I told you enough?”
Hard to argue with that.
Reflection Not Reaction: A conversation with Rita Maron from The Academy Players
Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important that we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful my friend Rita Maron was able to speak with me this week.
Rita is the Artistic Director of the Academy Players in Providence, Rhode Island.
Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?
Rita Maron: Numb, trying really hard to stay positive and focus on our other aspects of theater, our building, and improvements and constant contact with a large majority of our Academy family.
KB: Academy was about to open Tuck Everlasting when all this began. I’ve started most of these interviews by asking artistic directors if they plan to return to whatever programming was disrupted as the result of the pandemic. Do you plan on revisiting “Tuck,” and were any of the other projects that you had planned on producing titles you’d like to see when the time comes to reopen?
RM: We are constantly monitoring the ever-changing guidelines with COVID-19, and have tentatively scheduled Tuck Everlasting, which was going to be a fundraiser for Heavenly Gingers,as our first show after we reopen. Heavenly Gingers was created by our friends Frank O’Donnell and John Morris. Heavenly Gingers honors the lives and passions of two fiery redheads and helps Keep Passion for Performance Alive in young people. This foundation is extremely important to Academy Players we were all so saddened when we had to stop the production. Prior to COVID, we had secured the rights to six other musicals and as soon as we are clear to do so, we plan on doing our whole season in 2021, along with some amazing surprises.
KB: Education is a huge component of the work you do at Academy. What are you hearing from parents right now? Are they eager to return with their children and families to the theater or is there apprehension to do so?
RM: We hear daily from our family of parents, friends and siblings about their want and need to return to Academy. The families want a sense of normalcy, and from what I hear constantly, from phone calls, texts, messages, emails and social media posts, they want to return. I honestly think that many of our families who fall in this category know that we would always have their safety and health as our number one priority. Over the years we have earned that trust and everyone is treated like family so everyone is ready to return home to the family. I miss everyone so much.
KB: I said to one of the artists I interviewed for Epic that while I could see some ways around producing plays even with social distancing guidelines, I’m not sure how I would undertake a musical with those protocols in place. Do they seem as prohibitive to you as they do to me? As a director and choreographer of big cast shows, can you envision creating that kind of work under these guidelines?
RM: Yes, I do think the protocols in place are prohibitive. Based upon the current guidelines, I do not believe we can responsibly put on a full-scale musical that for me would ensure the safety of our cast, musicians, crew and faithful audience members. With that being said, we have had meetings with our team reaching out to the younger directors and choreographers, allowing them to design a blueprint of virtual rehearsals and performances remotely for now. Dance and choreography is such a huge extension of a musical. It continues to tell the story where the libretto ends. I don’t know how you would complete the story without being able to achieve dancing and close contact.
KB: Fiscally speaking, producing musicals seems to get more and more expensive. Right now the question everyone is asking is whether or not they can reopen, limit capacity and still be financially viable. Does that seem possible to you?
RM: Given the math, no, it does not seem possible. We have under 200 seats, and based upon the social distancing guidelines, we have calculated that only 25% of our seating could be utilized. When you then calculate the cost of the rights to a musical, the cost of a live band, costumes and props, it doesn’t add up. When you calculate that math and only being allowed 40 to 50 people in the audience, any musical we would perform would generate a loss at the end of the run. This goes against our model where we normally fill our house at each performance.
KB: How are you feeling as an artist about stepping into a space again? As we start to see people adjusting to the idea of reopening, do you feel like it’s something you’d be comfortable doing in the next few months or are you in the camp that feels we should wait until 2021 or maybe even beyond?
RM: I hate this question!! Personally, I will continue to listen to the experts and continue to reflect before I react. At the present time I am not comfortable having my staff, cast and audiences come home to Academy. As time goes on, and as the experts find out more about this virus and how it impacts all of us, that might change. The biggest game-changer there is a vaccine or treatment that will make it safe for us to interact the way we used to. This pandemic has caused all theaters to reassess our health protocols and put those additional safeguards in place prior to opening. We are doing that during this dark period. We all will be better and stronger theaters. If something was to change and there was a miracle, my team and I are ready to open at any moment. Academy is extremely fortunate to have its own building and be able to have the flexibility of opening and closing at our own discretion. We hope when we do open, this will be the last time we close for something this difficult.
KB: Academy is one of the more impressive arts facilities in Rhode Island, and I know your family runs a construction company in addition to the theater. Your husband Tom is often a great voice to listen to when it comes to things like safety. I know you’ve shared with me that he’s mentioned ideas about changing the physical aspects of a theater, not just Academy but theaters in general, to try and make them safer. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RM: The construction company had to make modifications to some of our safety protocols. These included constant cleaning of work areas, facemasks, social distancing, etc. The construction office was already set up in a way that allowed a safe work environment. With regard to the theater, there might have to be modifications to certain aspects of our theater, which would include designated entrances and exits to the theater. Tom feels it will be a “touchless” society when visiting the theaters and entertainment venues. More grants need to be available for theaters to implement physical changes to their venues to follow what might become the “new normal.” Academy is extremely fortunate to have the Commercial Construction Company as our partner for many reasons, which include being kept up-to-date with the constant safety and health code regulation changes to ensure safety all the time, even prior to this virus. As we move forward in this unprecedented time, Academy is ready for any and all changes for reopening.
KB: My theater doesn’t tend to have a lot of younger artists or audiences coming into it on a regular basis since usually the work we do is aimed at the college and above level. You’ve made welcoming audiences of all ages into your space as part of Academy’s mission. Does having to consider a wide range of age groups — from children to their grandparents — present more of a challenge as you try to plan for the future?
RM: I simply do not know enough about this virus to just worry about one age demographic. I am always concerned how it affects our audiences and cast members from ages 5 to 105. We may design special performance times for our elderly population as the evidence suggests that this age group are, sadly, the most vulnerable to this virus. We are designing performance schedules that would accommodate all of our audiences, and casts that are high risk or have underlying medical conditions. These were important areas our board of directors and team were working on before we went dark. Once a show is ready for opening and we are in tech, I tell my cast all the time, “You have all the tools to deliver. My concern now is my audience, what they need to be comfortable and happy.” If the audience tells me the music is too loud, the parking lot is too slippery, it is too cold in the building, I can’t hear the vocals, etc, my whole team goes to work and to successfully make our audiences happy at home. This will continue to be the focus as we enter this “new normal.” By the way, I hate the term “new normal.” I’m going to change that to a “better normal.” So this will be our focus as we enter a “better normal.”
KB: What’s your stance on digital programming? So far, everyone I’ve talked to has fallen on a different part of the spectrum. As a social media addict, I dove right in, but I still have a hard time getting used to long-form content, whereas other companies have decided it’s not for them at all. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, but what’s your feeling on it?
RM: I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. It’s just not for me. In my opinion, the definition of community theater is interacting with our community on all sides of the stage. This is part of Academy’s mission statement. Live theater is an essential part of our bond with our community and Academy family. Hugging the audience members that we know as they enter the theater is something that I love and to not be able to do that is heartbreaking to me. I love welcoming our community into the space. As I mentioned in a previous response, if our younger and talented staff request to do something digitally during this time, I’d say absolutely. Some of them have already begun doing that. I think it’s important to remember that this will be our younger generation’s reality now. Allowing them to explore, create and learn is again a huge part of our educational mission, which is always extremely important to me and my team.
KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?
RM: We are extremely fortunate to have a business manager who always plans for the worst when designing budgets. Although, like every other theater, we are feeling the economic strain and would welcome any contribution and support, I hope that this pandemic would create even more respect for what we do to make people happy on all sides of the stage. I hope that while people are home staying safe that they look forward to more theater and entertainment and make it a goal to get up and see some of these great theaters we have in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has some amazingly talented people and I love showcasing them. They are moms, dads, lawyers, nurses, doctors, business leaders, and more who have a passion to perform and are so good at it. There are the theaters that many are used to attending, and I hope that Rhode Islanders break some of those habits and seek out all of us and make it a goal with their family to attend some of the smaller theaters, yours included Kevin, as well as Contemporary, Mixed Magic, Burbage, Bristol, Out Loud, there are so many amazing theaters that Rhode Island as a whole should know about and be proud of. It’s such an artistic state filled with those who want to perform and tell their stories. So please remember to support all theaters in Rhode Island. We all want to survive this very difficult time together. You don’t have to give to Academy, but hopefully, you will make it a goal to support arts and theater groups in Rhode Island any way you can.
My hope is that this crisis has done some good with allowing all of us to introduce ourselves to a new audience while learning and promoting our safety protocols. The state leaders that stand before us every day keeping us informed are the same people who love to go to live theater, to be entertained, and forget their stress for a couple of hours. As they exit the theater, that appreciation to continue and support and help should be following them right to the city, state and government floors to ensure we are heard and never ever forgotten. We are a small business, we are a vital part of our economic growth in Rhode Island, as well as a huge part of the entertainment. The relationship between the arts and the economy is one that positively affects people on all levels, especially when it comes to mental health. My younger cast are eager to get back to where they have a place to belong and my adult cast look forward to releasing their anxiety at rehearsal and performance.
As one of my best friends and Academy Board members has said, “This is our gym. This is our church.” I am always so proud of my board of directors, members at large, our families, and all our volunteers, who care so much for theater, our mission, and why we do what we do. This is my family and it is a family to so many.
She told me her friend asked her if she was scared to go to the protest.
“I told her the truth. I told her I’m scared every day. That’s the truth. Now it’s like– I don’t know if I was always scared. I know I am. There are people sitting at home scared. If you’re going to sit at home and be scared, come down here and be scared doing something important. What’s going to happen? You’re going to get more scared? My mom can’t get out of bed today, because she’s so nervous about me being here. She came out with me, because how can it be worse than laying in bed worrying about it? People want me to be scared. Now my Dad said, ‘You better be out there.’ He wanted me out here. He knows I’m scared and I know he’s scared too, but what about being brave? What about that? I want to be brave. I don’t want to– My aunt, see, she can’t be out here, because she’s sick. That’s a different thing. She made me my sign though. It’s big. I told her, ‘You want me to carry that thing around? It’s as big as me.’ She said ‘Yes, I want you to carry it, because I can’t be there, so you carry that for me.’ That’s what I’m doing. My dad’s holding it now, because I told him I have to talk to this reporter.”
I told her I’m not a reporter, but I am a writer. I ask if I can write about her. She laughs at me.
“Just make sure you tell them I look cute and I’m not sweaty or anything. I know it’s not true, but everybody else is writing lies, so you tell them I look good out here.”
In addition to her parents, who are keeping an eye on her nearby, she’s brought about eight friends from her high school, and one from another school. They make up a small number of the estimated 10,000 people who protested peacefully in Providence this past weekend organized by young people just like her.
“My dad had a gun pulled on him once. He was– He told me not to tell this story, because I think he’s embarrassed that it happened, but he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was visiting his brother and he goes out to his car to get something and this police officer is driving by and stops and gets out of the car and asks him what he’s doing in this neighborhood. My dad tells him why he’s there and the cop– Dad, come tell the story. Can I tell the story?”
Her father doesn’t want to tell me the story, but he says she can tell the story — after she negotiates with him for a few minutes and agrees to give me the abbreviated version.
“The officer kept asking for my dad’s license and he was telling him it was in the car and the officer wouldn’t let him go get it in the car so what’s he going to do? Then the cop pulls the gun on him. This was when he was my age. He told me about that, because he wanted me to know what it’s like when I started going out and driving. He didn’t even want me to drive because of that. But you can get killed anywhere. You can be– He was outside his brother’s house. He was just going to his car. You can’t even move without somebody thinking they can pull a gun on you. That’s why we’re out here now.”
I ask her dad how he feels standing out here with her and he asks me to give him a minute, because if he’s going to talk to me, he wants to get the words right. I give him my email address and tell him that I can send him what he said later on if he wants to look at it, but that it’s all anonymous anyway. It’s not a great journalistic practice, but like I said, I’m not a journalist, and I can tell he feels better when I offer to give him a little editorial power after the fact. It turns out, he didn’t need it.
“When she was growing up, this kid was fearless. It hurt me to have to put fear in her. You don’t want to put fear in your kid. You want them to take care of themselves and to do the right thing, but when you see them wanting to jump in the pool, you tell them to jump. You see them wanting to explore on their bike and see what’s out there, you want to let them do it, because that’s how they grow. It hurts to have to clip their wings and tell them they can’t do what their friends are doing, because it could get them killed. You know, no matter what I tried to tell her, she was fearless. I heard you asking her about being scared. It scares me a lot, being a dad, being her dad, but she’s not going to be scared, and I’m looking around today at all these kids who are here because they’re not going to accept that. They’re not going to accept being scared as a part of their lives. I feel like an old man standing here next to her, and I am an old man, you know, compared to her, but fear will make you old too. That’s what it does to you.”
When I ask him if he would still prefer her to be scared if it would keep her safe, he says–
“But it won’t keep you safe. That’s just it. Nothing’s going to keep you safe. Like she said. You might as well be out here with us, because you are not safe. That’s a lie they tell you. What people are seeing now is that it’s never been safe to be Black, but people who look like you thought they were safe, and you were only safe until you started asking questions and watching these videos of people being killed, and then they showed you that you’re only allowed to live the way you do because they let you. That’s why it has to change. Because you’ve never had power. You have your privilege, but you don’t have any power. So you better pick up a sign and stand on the right side. That’s my advice.”
Luckily, they came with extra signs — all made by an aunt who couldn’t attend, but was there in spirit. The young lady I was interviewing handed one to me, and told me not to write about how little she looked holding up a sign that was nearly half her size.
“I must look dumb holding this thing up, but I don’t care. I’ll do it. Nobody cares about me looking dumb. We got bigger problems.”
The truth is, she didn’t look dumb or little or sweaty.
As the sun hit the sign, and she started to yell out a chant that her friends and parents repeated, she stood there looking downright–
In Providence: The Neighborhood
The day after Providence saw swarms of people running through its downtown area, breaking windows and looting stores, the streets started to fill up again, but this time, it was with people looking to lend a hand.
“The first thing I want to say to you is that I’m still hearing people say this was part of a protest. This was no protest. This was not associated with any protest.”
She was one of the people downtown, checking on a friend’s business and offering help where she saw it was needed. As someone who regularly attends protests, including the peaceful protest in Providence just a few days earlier, she woke up to the news of what had happened and immediately knew this had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement or people who want to see an end to the violence inflicted upon black men and women by the police.
“This was organized by people who want to tarnish what the protests are trying to do,” she tells me. “These people didn’t have signs. This was a show. They showed up– This was terrorism. Plain and simple. Look at that photo that was all over Twitter the next day. White men. No masks. You know who those men are. We can find them. We know how to find them and so do the police if they want to know who started all this. Let’s see if they do.”
Her friend agreed to speak with me, but she didn’t want her business identified.
“We need to talk about this like it’s two things,” he said, “because there are different conversations happening. People who riot because they’ve had it with not being listened to? I got no problem with that. I understand that. You want to know how many times I’ve been pulled over? You want to hear how I’ve been dragged out of a car in front of my own store three months ago? That never made the news. You want to know why I got dragged out of my car? I didn’t come to a full stop at the sign back there. That’s why they dragged me out of the car and put cuffs on me. That’s what they said. I know I came to a full stop. The conversation about rioting — that’s one conversation about it. The other is that someone sent me a video of these boys trying to loot my store. Three white boys doing it, and I have my sign–”
He points to a Black Lives Matter sign positioned in his window.
“–I have it right there. People angry with the way things are? They’re going to throw a brick through my store? I don’t think so. I saw the video, but I already knew what was going on. The other conversation we need to have is about people who are using this movement to stoke fear. The president went on television and said ‘If things stay bad then I’m coming in with tanks.’ What goes on after that? His people go, ‘Let’s keep it going then.’ As in — as in, let’s keep it bad. Then our guy gets to take control. Because they know he’s losing. They know he’s on the way out, and they’re running out of time. That’s what all this is.”
As he’s speaking, I notice a man approach him. They embrace, and the man asks what he can do to help. They speak for a few minutes, and the man ends up going inside the store to talk to a few others who showed up earlier that morning and were already hard at work.
“You believe that,” the owner says to me, turning back to me. “That’s been happening for hours. People poking their head in — strangers — wanting to help. I’ve been seeing that — I went for a walk to clear my head and I was seeing that all through downtown. I saw the news saying this was a war zone. This isn’t a war zone, this is our neighborhood. This is where we live. They tried to bring a war here, and they had to do it in the middle of the night like cowards. That’s what cowards do. Now it’s daylight and look what you got. All these people saying, ‘You broke some glass and you broke things that can be replaced and swept up. You didn’t break us though. You didn’t break the neighborhood, did you?’ They want everybody to stay in their houses and be afraid. Look at all these people coming out of their houses.”
A woman who had been up all night watching the news unfold drove downtown before work and ended up calling in, so she could stay and help out.
“I was just like– I was up crying and panicking. I don’t live anywhere near here, but you know, Rhode Island is so small. I’m down in — I live down in Exeter, but watching the news last night, I was like– This is my home. All these Joe Rogan wannabes are trying to trash my home. I don’t care about these big businesses, that’s not what it’s about. I don’t care if you knock over an ATM, but you walk through the streets with weapons and you try making people feel unsafe and then you act like you’re the same as people who want the police to stop killing people? This was an attack and seeing some of those smug faces thinking they fooled everybody and we don’t have their number– It was too much for me. I talked to my husband this morning and we talked about how when you feel afraid you think to pull back and hide and stay away from the city until all this blows over. But I worked in Providence for 26 years. I’m not going to be scared to go into Providence. All it took was me getting a phone call from my girlfriend who still works down here and she told me people were helping clean up and I told her I’d be there and I got in my car and went. My boss knows where I am. I– Believe it or not, I think he’s down here too. I’m going to keep coming to Providence. This is going on everywhere, and you can’t hide from it. You need to educate yourself and you need to help support the people who are doing the right thing and see that no more families have to watch a video where they see their father getting murdered for doing nothing. I didn’t feel safe last night, but there are people who feel that way every day. There are people who feel that way every morning when they wake up. They can’t walk down the street — and it was going on last night. The police were arresting black people last night who weren’t doing anything and you have a guy on Facebook who took a video of him trying to loot these businesses, and why isn’t he in jail right now? I’ve had it, and I’m– That’s all I can say. I’ve had it. I’m ready to help. Let’s do something.”
One store owner called me over as I was walking back to my car and showed me a jar full of money on their counter. I assumed they were pointing out how crazy it was that nobody had grabbed it. The counter is easy to see from the street, and a few of the windows had been busted. They told me the jar hadn’t been there before, and that they had to go find it in the back, because people kept coming in and asking to donate money. The jar had only been out for about two hours and it was already full. The owner told me they would use it for their deductible, and whatever was left open, they’d donate to a BLM-supported cause.
“That’s how we do it, right,” they said, still looking at that jar filled to the brim with support. “You get it and you give it back. That’s the only way to do it.”
Before I could ask them to elaborate on that, someone came in off the street and asked if they needed any help.
So I guess I got my answer.
In Providence: The Night Runner
Note: This story features details about a physical assault that might be difficult for some readers. Please be advised.
“It’s a good way to get to know a place. It’ll be one year here in October, but this is the first chance I’ve had to get out there and do it.”
She arrived here for a job that’s long gone and probably won’t be coming back anytime soon. This Friday she heard from her boss that she should start looking for other means of employment, and midway through the call, she heard him get choked up.
“After the call I went for a run.”
Before she moved to Rhode Island, she used to run all the time. There were a lot of open roads and she knew them by heart. When she got here, the pressures of a new home and a new job had her running on the treadmill before bed every night, but nowhere else.
“I like to run at night, when there are less people out, but I wasn’t sure where I could do that.”
Her house is down the street from Rhode Island College, and she thought that would be a good place for her first time. But once she got her laces tied, she knew she was going to go further.
“After going twice around the campus, I started running down Smith Street towards downtown.”
She didn’t expect anybody to be out, but this weekend was a display of extremes. Every bar or restaurant that she ran past was either overflowing with people or empty. One place had the door open and as she went by, she spotted one lonely man sitting at the end of the bar with his mask on, and she wondered if he needed a drink or just needed to get out like she did.
“When I got by the State House, there were some people standing around the mall talking about the rally that day. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d been around people — new people — so I just stood for a second, catching my breath, and one of them looked over at me. I was a little winded, because I wanted to try running with a mask, and that shit is not fun, but I just bought this mask I really liked and I think I look good in it, so I thought I should try it out. The woman who looked over at me smiled and put her mask on, and that made me laugh. Like I caught her or something. I should have gone over, but I don’t think anybody knows how to do anything anymore as far as meeting people.”
That wasn’t the only reason.
The conversation about the rally got her thinking about the last time she went to a protest. It was four years ago, and on her walk home, a group of men started shouting at her. When she ignored them, they encircled her, taunted her, asked her if she was at the protest, used slurs, and started shoving her. She yelled for help and one of the men grabbed her by the neck. Then she heard someone call out, a group from the rally saw what was happening and came running over, but that caused the men surrounding her to take off. Ever since then, every memory of that day is hot to the touch. Crowds are hard for her now. Walking is difficult. The leisure of it. The way it requires you to let your guard down. She likes being on her own and existing within her own thoughts.
She likes to run.
“I went up to the East Side and then I…I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to stop. If you overdo it, then you’re stranded, and it’s not like I want to get in a Lyft right now. I don’t know anyone here who could come pick me up. I just wanted to keep going until I felt lost, because…It felt safe. I don’t know if it’s because…I was in these places where there were just houses and all the houses were dark and nobody was out, but it was quiet, and I felt like I could go wherever I wanted and nobody would bother me. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. When I used to run back home, I never stopped. I didn’t slow down. I knew where I would feel comfortable going and where I wouldn’t, and there weren’t…It was only a couple of routes I would take. It felt good to go and not think about where I was going.”
When she got too tired to run, she started walking. She stopped paying attention to street signs and businesses, but she kept the Providence skyline in her view, and when she felt a wave of exhaustion kick in, she started walking back toward it.
“At about, shit, three in the morning? That’s when I got home. I walked in the door and I went to bed with my running clothes on. I didn’t even change out of them. I haven’t been as tired as that since I got here.”
She says she’s going back out again that night, and when I call her this morning, she tells me she’s been out every night and has no plans of stopping. Logically, she knows that nowhere is completely safe, and that turning around a wrong corner could take her right back to that day when she stopped finding solace in others, but she can’t seem to refrain herself any longer. She’s not sure if she’s ready to walk up to a stranger on the street and introduce herself, but she’s no longer content to run in circles, pretending as if familiarity will guarantee security. Why not go a little farther?
Over the past few nights, she’s able to get herself lost on her runs, but of course, that’ll get harder the more she learns about the terrain.
“It’s a small state so pretty soon I’ll know all of it.”
I ask her what’ll happen then.
There’s a silence on the other end of the line, and then a laugh.
“Then I can go wherever I want.”
I’m not sure if she believes that, but I’m not sure if it matters either.
What we need to tell ourselves in order to be brave won’t necessarily make us brave, but it’ll move us further away from inaction.
She asks me if I want to go running with her sometime, and I tell her I’d love that. But she does issue me a friendly warning.