Sweat (Nottage)

One of my favorite times of the year comes when theatres announce their shows for the following seasons. It always seems possible to see everything. One I won’t miss is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. I saw one of her earlier plays, Ruined, and was blown away not only but the play, but the research and interviews that went into creating it.

This play, set in a very different time and place, does overlap with Ruined in one essential way. What, she asks in both plays, will people do when they seem to have very few choices?

The characters who populate the bar that is the setting for this play have to contend with each other, with current events, and with family history. No one gets out unscathed, and I think a Director must have quite a challenge centering the play. Whose story is it? There’s certainly no one without flaws and ulterior motives. It’s one of those plays where you’d like to get inside the heads of any number of characters to find out what they are really thinking.

How did we get here? This play tells us.

Nottage’s site


Sweat at the Cleveland Playhouse


Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Thompson)

Before I read this book, all I knew about Attica came from Dog Day Afternoon. In other words, I didn’t know much. The only reason I bought this book is that it won the Pulitzer, so I was curious. And what an unbelievable and all-too-believable.

The conditions at the prison and the retaking of the prison cannot be easily dismissed. Here we have the very definition of man’s inhumanity to man. How in the world could people let other people live under certain conditions? How could they treat them the way the prison employees, the way the prison doctors, treated those prisoners? I don’t want to gloss over any part of this.

But the way the state of New York then fought so desperately to change the narrative, to hide the narrative, to punish those who’d been punished too much and to ignore those who deserved so much more (and here I mean both the prisoners and the hostages) was just astonishing. To read this book is to look into the face of cold, calculating meanness. To send the families of the employees who’d died a check, a very small check, a very much needed check, as a way to guarantee that they couldn’t pursue other legal means of being compensated. . . I mean, who thinks like that?

And the way it all stretched out – for years and years and years. I’d be reading and Thompson would mention the date, and I’d find myself shocked at how long it took to even begin to right even a few of the very many wrongs that took place at Attica.

This is an amazing, well-narrated, powerful and necessary book.

Olio (Jess)

Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.

Jess, who has won both the Pulitzer and the Anisfield-Wolf awards for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that even at over 200 pages, I never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.

We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life at Oberlin and her brave and bold exit.

Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).

I can’t wait to hear him present his work in September, as a part of Cleveland’s Book Week.

Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio
5:30 p.m.
Karamu House

Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by the “roller-coaster mélange” in Olio, Jess’ second book of poetry, which reclaims African-American voices from the Civil War to World War I. It also won a Pulitzer Prize. Jess will bring his work to life on stage at Karamu House.

In the mean time, there’s this performance of “Syncopated Sonnets.”

And here’s his site.

Between Riverside and Crazy (Guirgis)

This is a tremendous and timely play. Though some may see it as a response to current events regarding the police, I think that would be missing the point. It is not only more complicated than that about the police, it is much more nuanced play in general. There are elements on the surface and those underneath.  Rent control, the (mis)use of the ‘n’ word (I don’t want to spoil anything here), the power of belief, race and racism, etc..  And there’s a multi-layered issue about Jewish stereotypes that angered and entangled me. There are also classical elements here – fathers and their children. It comes as no surprise to me that it won the Pulitzer. But when I saw it at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (check out this pretty cool preview), the last two scenes drove me crazy. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t know how you direct these two scenes without revealing a key stage direction. But maybe Guirgis doesn’t want it revealed? At Steppenwolf, the ending came off as kind of dream-like. Is that the goal? If so, then the previous scene seems not to work. We’ll see what happens Cleveland Playhouse’s upcoming production.


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Wright)

I’ve known of this well-regarded book for a long while, but I don’t think I was ready to read it. A visit to the 9/11 Museum finally prompted me. It is a very, very good book. Wright’s research is incredible.  To watch bin Laden’s transformation from a human being I could recognize to a deluded fanatic was both astonishing and understandable.

I had long heard that one of the United States’ problems was a lack of cooperation among various agencies. Until I read this book, I was willing to give them some slack. This was unprecedented. Who knows how many threats they have to sift through on a daily basis, etc.? But that forgiveness is all gone now. We knew things. We had information. The failure to share information because of rivalries, wrongly interpreted laws, and individual personalities is recounted here, and without necessarily blaming anyone, Wright points out numerous times when opportunities to capture or kill certain people were missed. This is not to say that 9/11 would not have happened, only to say that opportunities – major ones – were missed for largely petty reasons.

So if you’re ready, this, I think, is the book to read.


Ozone Journal (Balakian)

Since I am currently mired in the muck that is Middlemarch, I wanted to finish something to get going on a review. I found Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate incredible – vivid, personal, informative, engaging. It turns out he’s known more as a poet. In fact, this collection won the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t really get into it. The title poem is a long one, and I don’t know, but I have a hard time sustaining my focus when I read long poems. I can read pages and pages of prose at a time. So broke up the long one, “Ozone Journal.” Consequently, while I enjoyed certain sections, I could never really capture the momentum of the whole piece.

A quick scan down the table of contents will reveal why this book comes off as kind of a travelogue, a catalogue of name and place-dropping. I liked “Joe Louis’s Fist,” but I also have a connection to Detroit. Balakian certainly has a way with a line (“The blue knifes the canyon”), but overall these poems left me a little empty.


The Sympathizer (Nguyen)

For a first novel, this is remarkable. It is well-written. Nguyen’s writing is dense. He does not miss any opportunity to take a jab at someone or something – no opportunity for cleverness is ignored. If he overwrites at times – and he does, many times – it’s forgivable. Writers are told not to leave anything behind for their next novel.

There’s just one problem. And it’s a big one. There’s nothing new here. No insights, no observations, no questions, nothing that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Okay, there are two exceptions – both dealing with the motif of duality that dominates the book. The first adds the question of time to the question of place when it comes to those with one foot in two cultures. The second is Nguyen’s writing choice at the end of the novel to make it clear how this exploration of duality turns out.

A promising writer? Yes. A good book? Meh. Worthy of a Pulitzer? Nope.