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Does Any Candidate Stand for Separation of Church and State?

May 21, 2019

I am looking for the candidate with the guts in 2019 to quote JFK’s 1960 speech on separation of church and state and say he/she agrees with it. The recent front-page Washington Post headline, “Teaching Scripture in the public schools,” was chilling to me. The column reported on the Bible being taught in Kentucky public schools and went on to report legislation like that in Kentucky that permits this in public schools is making its way through at least 10 state legislatures promoted by the religious right legislative effort called Project Blitz. Apparently the Georgia and Arkansas legislatures have passed similar bills now waiting for their governors to sign them into law. 


Of course President Trump weighed in with a Tweet, “Numerous states introducing bible literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the bible. Starting to make a turn back. Great!” The question is turn back to what? Surely Trump doesn’t know or care other than his most ardent supporters like this. It’s funny when Trump talks about religion — he being a generally disgusting pig who thinks the Ten Commandments are only for others. We know he has violated at a minimum the third, “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath Holy;” sixth, “Thou shalt not commit adultery;” seventh, “Thou shalt not steal;” and eighth, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  I am old enough to remember Sept. 12, 1960 when John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic candidate for president was forced to address his religious beliefs. The fear at the time being his decisions would be impacted or even directed by the Pope. 


I want us as a nation to go back to what Kennedy believed about religion’s place in politics. Kennedy said, “While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence … the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” He went on to say “Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”


So I am looking for the candidate with the courage to say those words today. Is there a candidate out there who doesn’t play to religious voting blocs? A candidate who when the religious right speaks out loudly rather than saying the religious left should rise up against what they say rather calls on all decent people to rise up and speak out. Where is the candidate who will quote the words of our Founding Fathers from the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and follow that with what JFK said nearly 60 years ago to explain what those words mean to them.

This column first appeared in the Washington Blade.

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'The Oresteia' at the Shakespeare: An Epic Production

May 9, 2019

Michael Kahn’s final outing as a director before officially retiring as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre is epic. This production of The Oresteia displays all his enormous creative skill and ability and he draws every last drop of talent from his amazing actors. I think in some way he wanted to remind Simon Godwin, who will take over as Artistic Director in July, how big the shoes are he has to fill. 

       Michael Kahn explaining The Oresteia (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Michael Kahn explaining The Oresteia

Michael said “I’ve always wanted to do all of The Oresteia. When I was in college, we read the whole Oresteia, and I was completely fascinated by the story, by the form, by the relationships, by the incredible depths of what it was about—violence, revenge, and the search for human justice.”  The original is a trilogy and Michael Kahn has directed condensed trilogies before, including The Oedipus Plays and Henry VI. He has a unique understanding that the grand scale of these plays is heightened by a sleek, rousing adaptation.  

So he contacted the talented Ellen McLaughlin, a prodigious interpreter of the Ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. With this interpretation she both honors the original plot and language but with a fresh take imbuing them with a modern resonance.  McLaughlin’s play compresses Aeschylus’ trilogy into one thrilling three-act play, presented with one fifteen minute intermission,  centered on Agamemnon’s slaughter of his daughter, committed in the name of martial duty and pious sacrifice, but deemed unforgivable by his wife Clytemnestra. Kahn has said “her revenge is a work of patience and passion, emotions linked by the endurance of suffering.”

Kelley Curran (Photo by: Scott Suchman) Kelley Curran

The acting is incredible across the board but special kudos must go to Rad Pereira (Electra), Kelley Curran (Clytemnestra) and Josiah Bania (Orestes). When they are on stage either alone or playing off each other they are riveting.   

This interpretation of the plays questions the very notion of justice and whether justice is the search for truth or the pursuit of retribution. When the chorus questions what to do about Orestes after he has killed Clytemnestra you are forced to think deeply about what you would do. McLaughlin in her interpretation asks “What is our view of justice in today’s society?” Not an easy question to answer for many of us. “Can we accept our complicity in crimes, whether we partake in the violence or merely turn away? And where is our shared humanity in a world of suffering, violence and the galling indifference of the gods? “

 Kahn clearly chose his cast carefully both for their amazing talent and range. For the chorus he chose Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Johnathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray and Sophia Skiles. Simone Warren is wonderful as Iphigenia, Kelcey Watson a strong Agamemnon, and Zoe Sophia Garcia a wondrous Cassandra. 

(Photo by: Courtesy The Shakespeare Theatre)

No production reaches its full potential without great scenic and costume design and Susan Hillary has done a masterful job. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton and Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers with Music composed by Kamala Sankaram add to the quality of the production and all highlight what Kahn wanted to say with this production.  

We all know what an amazing talent Michael Kahn is. He has received numerous awards from around the world and in addition is credited with helping to build downtown DC when he took the leap of faith to move the Shakespeare Theatre Company there. Leaving us with this epic production of The Oresteia as his final directing outing at the Shakespeare will surely make us miss him even more. We can only hope that like Cher he will be doing many ‘final’ tours and we will get to enjoy his talent as a director again in the future. 

The Oresteia will be at Shakespeare’s Sidney Harman Hall until June 2, 2019. 


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'The Children:' A Play at Studio Theatre That Makes You Think

May 7, 2019

The Studio Theatre has a hit with The Children. Every component; the writing, the acting, scenic design and inspired directing by David Muse all make for a riveting ninety minutes of theater.

Lucy Kirkwood’s play forces you to think and that is a good thing. She writes about everything from the economy, climate change, the relationship of parents to their children, husbands to wives, and girlfriends; and our deepest values. She says she is “very grateful to the Baby Boomer generation” for all they have accomplished but then writes they are to blame for much of what is wrong with the world and questions what they may owe the next generations finally asking if they should be willing to act heroically and shorten their lives for them.

Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen and Naomi Jacobson (Photo by: Carol Rosegg) Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen and Naomi Jacobson

The Children is set in a remote cottage on the British coast, a long-married pair of retired nuclear physicists, Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (Richard Howard) are living a very modest life in the aftermath of a natural disaster, which turns out to be an earthquake and then tidal wave which caused an explosion in the nuclear plant in which they worked on the coast of their town. Since the disaster they are giving scrupulous care to energy rationing, their garden, and Hazel takes to practicing yoga to cope. When a former colleague, Rose (Naomi Jacobson), reappears after 38 years, her presence totally upends the couple’s equilibrium and trust in both their relationship and their values. As the fallout from long-ago decisions they all made hurtles into view, Rose unveils a proposal that threatens more than their marriage, it threatens to shorten their lives and change their relationship to their children. 

Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen (Photo by: Studio Theatre) Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen

There are times during the 90 minutes of the play when one thinks the playwright must spend her life thinking about all these issues and being depressed. But then all three incredibly talented actors led by the directing of David Muse, take her words and as their lives unravel in front of you, flaws and all, I found myself constantly changing what I thought about each of them as the play moved along. I disliked Rose at the beginning of the play but more fully understood her and how she thought by the end. Hazel became a real person in front of my eyes. Robin was the stoic who ping-ponged between them and he did it superbly. They became so real and their existential crisis hit home I left the theater wondering what I would do in their situation. At one point, since they are physicists they talk about what has happened and what is happening in the plant now. While scenic designer Tom Kamm set a perfectly good stage for 88 minutes of the play, all taking place in the kitchen of the small cabin they are now living in, his true brilliance comes out in the final two minutes of the play as the set is opened up with the drawing back of curtains and you are left to wonder if even Hazel has decided to join Rose and Robin who had already agreed to work in the exploded dangerous plant. Nephelie Andonyadis does a good job as costume designer as does Miriam Nilofa Crowe as Lighting Designer. 

This is a play everyone should see from Baby Boomers to their Millennial Children. Each may come to a different view of each other. The Children will be at the Studio Theatre through June 2, 2019.

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