Author Archives: melissahillman

Worldbuilding: Your Secret Weapon

Cartoon image of Melissa in a red-orange shirtwaist dress with orange details, including a pumpkin brooch. Melissa has short red hair with bangs and wears black-framed glasses.
Art by Asia Ellington! I only own this dress in my dreams.

I’m giving a workshop in worldbuilding for playwrights! Come play with me!

Worldbuilding isn’t something we talk about often in playwriting and screenwriting. It’s more common to writers of fictional prose, especially SF/F writers.  Careful attention to worldbuilding, however, can level up your scripts significantly. Conversely, its lack can sink a piece, distancing or even confusing your audience. 

When people give examples of excellent worldbuilding, they’re always rich, deeply crafted fantasy scapes like the Lord of the Rings films, NK Jemisin’s fiction, or Game of Thrones. When you ask people about worldbuilding in playwriting, people will offer high concept musicals like Wicked or Seussical. But all well-crafted plays have richly detailed worldbuilding.

At its heart, worldbuilding is about consistency and detail

This Sunday at 4PM PST, I’ll be giving a Zoom workshop through PlayCafe on worldbuilding in playwriting. We’ll discuss the basics of intentional worldbuilding, troubleshooting common pitfalls, building inclusive worlds, and navigating authenticity.  Reserve your tickets here! The workshop is free, with a suggested donation of $10-20 to support the great work PlayCafe does for local playwrights. 

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Election Lawsuits: A Calming Closer Look

I have to admit I’m writing this piece as much for myself as I am for you. As a card-carrying Gen Xer, I’m a firm believer in KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! The more we know about Trump’s election lawsuits and claims of fraud, the easier it will be to see through his nonsense. 

First, let’s talk about Kayleigh’s binders. The woman who draws a taxpayer-funded salary to perform the duties of the White House press secretary has instead been wasting her time at work doing personal favors for one Donald J. Trump. You may have seen her waving around binders and claiming she has 234 signed affidavits. One brave Reuters reporter dove in and read them all when they were released, posting a thread on Twitter with examples. If you’re nervous about what evidence of fraud Republicans might have, real or invented, this thread is a calming read. They have bupkes.

A screenshot of Kayleigh McEnany on FoxNews holding two white binders, wearing a white shirt, and just being very very white in general.
OK, girl

Now let’s talk about the lawsuits themselves. I’ll limit myself to the post-election suits and a few pertinent pre-election suits; if I included all the pre-election lawsuits, this piece will be 20,000 words long. The pre-election suits are primarily the kinds of racist voter suppression attempts we’ve come to expect from the GOP. Most failed, but too many passed. Voter suppression will be a key issue between now and the 2022 midterms, so keep your eye on it. For now, let’s look at Deludinius Mendaciwhine Tantrump’s post-election lawsuits. Buckle up, kittens; here we go:

The Arizona state flag. It fails to appropriately capture just how freaking hot it is there, but it comes close.

ARIZONA

Aguilera v Fontes: This is one of the “sharpie lawsuits” that alleged votes for Trump in Maricopa County, Arizona, were invalidated because poll workers gave Trump voters sharpies to fill out ballots. It’s unclear how poll workers magically knew who was planning to vote for Trump. This was an internet rumor with no evidence and even less sense, so it was DISMISSED on 11/7. SCORE: 0-1

Donald J. Trump for President Inc. v Hobbs: Believe it or not, this is an identical lawsuit to Aguilera v Fontes. It was DECLARED MOOT on 11/13 as statewide votes have been tabulated and the Trump team realized Biden’s lead in Arizona was insurmountable. The court had previously asked plaintiffs to compile this suit with Aguilera since they’re the exact same suit, and plaintiff said no– because Aguilera had already been dismissed for lack of evidence. LOL. SCORE: 0-2

Arizona Republican Party v Fontes: Basically, this asks for a hand count of votes by precinct instead of at voting centers, and asks for an expansion of current audit practices. This was filed 11/12. Even if they win, Maricopa County vote totals show Biden ahead by 2.16%.. Recounts rarely overturn elections, and when they have, the original margin of victory was 0.05 – 0.1%. My guess is this suit will be declared moot as well. ONGOING, BUT IRRELEVANT. SCORE: 0-2

The Georgia state flag. It says "CONSTITUTION," "JUSTICE," "WISDOM," "MODERATION," and "IN GOD WE TRUST."

GEORGIA

In re: Enforcement of Election Laws and Securing Ballots Cast or Received After 7pm on November 3, 2020: The Trump Campaign and the Georgia Republican Party sued in an attempt to stop 53 votes– you read that right, 53 votes– from being counted in Chatham County, GA because, so Trump et al claimed, they were received after the close of polls. The court issued a one page order laughing them out of court for lack of evidence. DISMISSED. SCORE: 0-3

Brooks v Mahoney: Bunch of Republican yahoos in Georgia filed on 11/11 in an attempt to stop the statewide vote from being certified. They claim that voters’ voting and equal protected rights were denied, and therefore election results in eight Georgia counties are “illegal” and should just be thrown out entirely. Their evidence is speculative at best, mostly dependent on two things: five individuals claiming that they received mail-in ballots for dead relatives and the like, and– you’re gonna love this– the fact that Biden got more votes. They also claim that many Georgia counties have more registered voters than five-year-old population data predicted they would have, and they’re taking a Hail Mary pass at voting machines crashing in two counties, which they say is the same “glitch” that caused votes to be “miscounted” in Michigan. They must be hoping the court isn’t capable of googling the actual facts of the case from Michigan. Brooks v Mahoney is the sure_jan.gif of lawsuits. Since the entire state is undergoing a hand recount, this suit will probably be declared moot, but if not, surely it will be dismissed for lack of evidence. That said, even if Trump somehow managed to disqualify exactly the number of votes needed to win Georgia (and I’m sure that it’s just a coincidence that this lawsuit asks for exactly that), it doesn’t change the national outcome. ONGOING, BUT IRRELEVANT. SCORE: 0-3.

Why is Bigfoot on the Michigan state flag?

MICHIGAN

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and Eric Ostegren v Benson: This one is hilarious. A dude named Eric Ostergren alleges that he was “excluded” from observing vote counting. However– and I quote the court in its ruling against Trump– “The complaint does not specify when, where, or by whom plaintiff was excluded. Nor does the complaint provide any details about why the alleged exclusion occurred.” They also submitted an affidavit from a poll worker who claims she was told by an unnamed poll worker that other unnamed poll workers said to backdate ballots. “Someone told me they heard someone else say X” is literally hearsay about hearsay. OBVIOUSLY Trump lost this one, but they’ve asked for it to be appealed, so technically it’s ONGOING. But since they already LOST this suit once, I’ll count it. SCORE: 0-4

Stoddard v City Election Commission: Republicans sued to stop the city of Detroit from counting votes. They LOST for lack of evidence. The 11/6 court order is full of snark about their lack of evidence and reliance on “mere speculation.” SCORE: 0-5

Polasek-Savage v Benson: On election day, Republicans asked for an emergency ruling challenging Oakland County, Michigan’s rule limiting poll watchers to one per party at absentee vote counting. DENIED. SCORE: 0-6

Constantino v Detroit: Another one claiming Detroit election results are too Black “illegal.” On 11/13, the court determined that the suit was “not credible,” both for lack of evidence and for the fact that many of the plaintiff’s concerns come from a lack of understanding of vote counting procedure because they failed to attend the pre-election informational walkthrough. You may have seen articles about this suit since it’s the one that contained things like “one poll worker was a big, intimidating man wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt” and “people were giving us dirty looks.” DENIED. SCORE: 0-7

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v Benson: This one also seeks to have the Wayne County, Michigan vote invalidated. Detroit is in Wayne County. It’s actually the DJT campaign plus a list of other people, including our old friend Eric “Lack of Evidence” Ostergren. This is another one about Republican poll watchers being “denied” entrance or re-entrance after leaving. The previous Michigan suits about this established that poll watchers were only denied entrance when the number of poll watchers had already reached the limit for that polling place. Previous judgments also mentioned that Republican poll watchers were so aggressive, disruptive, and combative that more than once they had to be removed by police for threatening poll workers. Nice. This one is technically ONGOING but it’s very unlikely to succeed. SCORE: 0-7. 

Bally v Whitmer. This is a doozy. Filed 11/10, it alleges all the same garbage about widespread fraud– backdating, computer “glitches,” lack of “transparency” due to poll watchers being “denied,” “clerical errors,” and “many other issues and irregularities” in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Ingham Counties. In case you’re wondering why those counties were singled out, Wayne County = Detroit, Washtenaw County = Ann Arbor, and Ingham County = Lansing. You have to hand it to these people– they’re persistent. At some point soon, someone’s going to be held in contempt for filing suit after suit alleging the same disproven, worthless, evidence-free garbage. In any case, this is ONGOING, but it seems very unlikely, given past rulings on these same allegations, that it will succeed. SCORE: 0-7

The Minnestoa state flag.

MINNESOTA, FOR SOME REASON

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Simon: The Trump campaign asked for all mail-in ballots received in Minnesota after election day to be segregated. The complaint was WITHDRAWN on 11/2, probably because Minnesota was already doing that. At this point, with Trump losing Minnesota by 231,633 votes. Trump has stopped claiming “fraud” in Minnesota and says he will never return to the state. I’m sure they’re broken-hearted. Personally, I think he’ll be back as soon as he’s free to start charging for tickets to his superspreader rallies. SCORE: 0-8.

The Nevada state flag. It says "BATTLE BORN."

NEVADA

Stokke v Cegavske: Welcome to Nevada, home of Las Vegas, acres and acres of desert, and Trump megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who has already told Trump to just coned already FFS. This suit is the same old “BUT OUR POLL WATCHERS” and gripes about signature matching software we’ve seen elsewhere. Republicans asked for a temporary restraining order to halt vote counts in Clark County, home to– you guessed it– Las Vegas, and to allow poll watchers to get closer than six feet. DENIED on 11/6. SCORE: 0-9

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and the Nevada Republican Party v Gloria: Republicans were hearing voices in their heads calling “Gloria,” but they were far less successful than Laura Branigan was in 1982. Whatever happened to Laura Branigan? Anyway, DISMISSED on 11/9. SCORE: 0-10

Kraus v Cegavske: Another poll watcher case. Trumplicans wanted to stop vote counting in Clark County until they were allowed to observe the process. Poll watchers were restricted to 25 feet away from the vote counting, which is honestly kind of ridiculous, but at any rate Republican poll watchers were treated no differently than Democrat poll watchers, so the court ruled GTFOH. The Trumplicans were all, WE SHALL APPEAL and Clark County was like, GIVE ME A DAMN MINUTE and I’ll get you a doc with a settlement compromise because frfr, 25 feet is kind of ridic for both sides. The Trumplicans were like, WE DEMAND A STAY RIGHT NOW! STOP COUNTING VOTES!!!!!!! and the court ruled Settle down, Beavis. DENIED. SCORE: 0-11.

I need to get something to drink before I start in on Pennsylvania. 

The Pennsylvaia State Flag. It was show ponies on it and I have no idea why. It says "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence."

PENNSYLVANIA

OK, I’m back with a big glass of water and a molasses cookie. I’ll post the recipe at the end because I have the world’s best molasses cookie recipe, no lie. 

Republicans filed numerous pre-election lawsuits and lost all of them. They’re not in the count here because they’re all pre-election suits focused on voter suppression rather than challenging the results in any real way, but bear it in mind that Republicans were already cramming frivolous lawsuits into the Pennsylvania system long before election day. 

Woodruff v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: “So much fraud!” “Do you have evidence?” “I withdraw most of my complaint.” “Most?”   “I mean, I have SOME evidence.” “Do you, though?” “………………….no.” DENIED 11/3. SCORE: 0-12

Bognet v Boockvar. This one has a lot of moving parts. You can read the decision here. DENIED 11/9. SCORE: 0-13.

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and Republican National Committee v Boockvar: In a rare win for the Trump campaign on 11/12, the court required Pennsylvania counties to toss out votes from voters who failed to provide supplemental ID by 11/9. The votes were already being segregated pursuant to an 11/5 court order, so this will not impact the state election results. Trumpworld is celebrating because the ruling at its heart was that Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State and KNOWN FEMALE PERSON didn’t have the authority to grant an extension to voters three days before the election, after she was told by the USPS that Pennsylvania had been thoroughly DeJoyed and would be unlikely to return mail-in ballots on time. Trumpworld is speculating that this means wins elsewhere. It does not. Trump’s attorneys admit that the goal isn’t to flip Pennsylvania since they’re too far behind for any of their lawsuits to have that impact, and of course there’s the small matter of losing every suit but this one. Campaign attorneys say their goal is to narrow Biden’s lead to trigger a recount. As I say above, a recount is extremely unlikely to change the results. WIN. SCORE: 1-13

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Montgomery County Board of Elections: The Trump campaign is asking for 592 ballots to be invalidated because the voters forgot to put their return address on the outside of the mail-in ballot envelope. DENIED 11/13. SCORE: 1-14. 

In re: Motion for Injunctive Relief of Northampton County Republican Committee: Republicans wanted to prevent the Northampton County Board of Elections from disclosing the identity of canceled ballots. I guess they didn’t want people finding out their votes had been invalidated, so they wouldn’t be able to seek remedy. A garden variety voter suppression effort. DENIED 11/3. SCORE: 1-15

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Boockvar: Basically, the Trump campaign has asked the court to invalidate the vote in all Pennsylvania counties that voted for Biden. If you want to read a zillion pages of Trumpian whining, be my guest. Here’s the motion to dismiss. The original complaint was filed 11/9, so it’ll be a few days before we get the court’s ruling. Unless they’ve suddenly found real evidence of fraud that’s not “Biden won,” this will be dismissed as all other claims of fraud have been dismissed. ONGOING. SCORE: 1-15

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v Bucks County Board of Elections: The Trump campaign initially filed on election day to stop Bucks County from counting mail-in ballots. That was DISMISSED. I’m seeing conflicting information about whether this is an appeal with new evidence or an entirely new suit or what, and honestly, I’m so exhausted by reading all these whiny, evidence-free suits that I’m not planning to find out. Regardless, the appeal (or new suit?) is ONGOING BUT IRRELEVANT, as it asks the court to toss out 2200 ballots in Bucks County, where Biden beat Trump by 17,328 votes. The hearing is 11/17, and the “evidence” they’re using is that the 2200 ballots were not sealed properly, were filled out with incomplete dates (such as leaving off the year), or did not have the full return address on the outer envelope. SHOCKING LEVELS OF FRAUD OMG SOMEONE IN BUCKS COUNTY DIDN’T INCLUDE THEIR ZIP CODE ON THE RETURN ENVELOPE THE WHOLE ELECTION IS INVALID. I’m still counting the initial dismissal, because after all this, we deserve it. SCORE: 1-16.

Pirkle v Wolf: Some random Republican voters (because Trumpworld needed to dig up some people who would have legal standing to bring the suit)  claim that election officials in some counties– COINCIDENTALLY all areas Biden won– counted illegal ballots. Their *coughcough* “evidence” contains gems like “Some voters were advised they needed to cure ballot defects while others were not” with no indication of where or when this happened, who performed these actions, or who witnessed them; and “a poll watcher overheard unregistered voters being advised to return later under a different name that was registered in the poll book,” which would be classic hearsay if they had details about who overheard this, when and where it was overheard, and who was doing the advising, but– and I know this will shock you– they do not. Which makes this yet another case of hearsay about hearsay. This was just filed on 11/10, so it has yet to be laughed out of court. ONGOING. SCORE: 1-16.  

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: Lie-filled 11/5 claim that Republican poll watchers are being “intentionally refused,” and that an emergency stay must be issued to stop the count until this is remedied. Because poll watchers were indeed present by agreement of all parties, this was DENIED 11/5. SCORE: 1-17.

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: This is actually five different requests for appeal. Each appeal is for a different area, but they all are demanding that ballots be thrown out if they have various minor envelope errors, are from people who voted by mail but then died before election day, or that were given a “secondary review” by election officials. There may be more; I just skimmed it. But honestly, who cares? They were all denied. 

FIRST APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 1211 ballots; DENIED 11/13. 

SECOND APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 1259 ballots; DENIED 11/13

THIRD APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 533 ballots; DENIED 11/13

FOURTH APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 860 ballots, DENIED 11/13

FIFTH APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 4466 ballots; DENIED 11/13

SCORE: 1-22.

 

The "Game Over" screen from the old arcade video game Asteroids.
Trump is currently sending desperate emails asking his supporters for more quarters, but the fine print shows where most of the money is really going. You’ll never guess.

I’m sure there are some suits I missed, and I’m sure there are some details I got wrong. I’m not an attorney. My point is not to provide legal analysis but to provide a bit of calm. I’ve seen many legal analysts say, “Don’t look at what they’re saying on TV; look at what they’re saying in court.” Trump’s attorneys are deeply into the nitpicking weeds, focusing on things like “the envelope wasn’t sealed” and “this voter put 11/1 instead of 11/1/20.” They’re putting hearsay about hearsay into official complaints, then asking for wildly outsized remedies like “the entire county’s vote should be invalidated.” They’re even filing suits using “evidence” that was thrown out in other cases.  

When your lawsuit asks for votes in an entire county to be invalidated because a Republican poll watcher thought Democrat poll watchers were “staring at her” and the room was “too loud,” you’re not a serious attorney filing a serious case. The point here is to create mistrust in our democratic processes, diminish faith in our democracy, foment anger and division, and stall as long as possible so that Trump and the RNC can grift as much money as possible from their gullible supporters.

While the suits are still ongoing, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security has flatly stated there was no election fraud, and multiple behind-the-scenes sources have admitted that Trump himself knows as much

While Trump will be out of office on January 20, 2021, Trumpism, with its lies, division, anger, bigotry, and hatred, will continue to exist. Republican voter suppression will continue to exist. Get ready to roll up your sleeves, but take a moment to enjoy Trump’s defeat. Why not make some molasses cookies?

World’s Best Molasses Cookies

There’s no picture because I went into the kitchen to take one and the cookies were all GONE. 

Ingredients

4 cups AP flour

½ tsp salt

2 ¼ tsp baking soda

2 tsp ginger

1 ¼ tsp ground cloves

1 ¼ tsp cinnamon

2 sticks of butter (1 C)

1 cup sugar

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup + 2TB dark molasses 

2 eggs

Method:

  1. Cream the butter and sugars.
  2. Add the molasses and eggs and mix well. 
  3. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.
  4. Add the dry team to the wet team and mix. You’ll need to use your hands to finish. 
  5. Roll into balls, then roll each ball in sugar. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet at least an inch apart and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. 
  6. Bake at 325F for 9 – 11 mins. Cool on a baking rack. 

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The Future of Theater in the US

Everything is in flux, our future is uncertain, and we’ve never been more important.

Delacriox’s “Liberty Leading the People” with “The Arts” on her flag and “Remember Who You Are” below

Are we really that important?

The arts are always important, but they’re critical during cultural inflection points, and right now, the US is in a doozy. The GOP slide into authoritarianism is unraveling our democracy, emboldening racists, and pushing the horrific stance that everyone but the GOP base are “the enemy,” and, in the words of Eric Trump, “not even people.”

Republicans have radically shifted their approach to the problems facing our nation.

In the past, we discussed problems in terms of: “What do we do about this fact?” Republicans have altered the terms of the debate to: “What is true?” They dismiss factual evidence by claiming that the source of that evidence is liberal — “the enemy.” The circular logic is dizzying — they claim that publishing a “fake news” story is “proof” that a source has a “liberal bias” while simultaneously claiming that the “proof” that the story is “fake news” is that it comes from a “liberal” source. Only stories that confirm their world view — no matter how outlandish or contradictory — can be “true,” and all stories that contradict their world view, no matter how well supported by evidence, are “fake news.”

While the point of this is discrediting any source that could cast their agenda in a negative light, that short term gain for Republicans comes at a major long term expense. If we can no longer agree that facts, evidence, & expertise = truth, then we can get nothing accomplished, there’s no point in thorough, serious debate about any issue, and the only consideration becomes: Who has the most raw political power?

Republicans now have fully committed to Bully Politics. Using their newfound ability to define “truth” politically rather than factually, they feel perfectly entitled to ignore factual problems and substitute a list of wholly invented problems, like “Antifa,” (which Trump’s own FBI determined was an ideology, not an organization), the imaginary idea that trans women are a danger to cis women, or the dire predictions they’ve made about every Democratic politician for years that never materialize — they’ll send jack-booted thugs to confiscate your guns; they’ll outlaw Christianity; they’ll put conservatives in concentration camps; they’ll institute communism; they’ll kidnap, sexually assualt, and eat your children (which, while new for everyone else, is familiar to Jews as one of the primary antisemitic lies, known as the “blood libel”).

Republicans have evacuated all serious discussions facing our nation and the world — climate change, systemic racism, authoritarianism, public health, Russian aggression, North Korean nuclear capabilities, losing our place as the economic center of the world, losing our place as a political world leader, alienating our allies while courting & flattering brutal dictators — by locating the argument in gaslighting rather than in discussing the issues. Republicans have bet the farm on “none of these problems are true” because they have no answer for “what do we do about these problems?”

This inflection point will decide the entire future of our culture. Are we a nation of evidence, careful consideration of the facts, and serious debate? Or are we a nation that prefers to ignore our problems and focus instead on sifting who is in the “in group” and who is in the “out group,” distributing rights and rewards accordingly?

At major cultural inflection points, the role of the arts becomes critically important. The arts are where we, as a culture, determine who we are, what we want to be, what we hope for, what we fear, what we’re willing to fight for. The stories of a culture reflect that culture and shape it. The storyteller shapes the narrative; the narrative shapes opinion and belief; opinion and belief shape the culture. There is no greater power than controlling the narrative, which is precisely why conservatives have radically shifted the terms of the debate and focused on the fictional narrative that the left are not, as previously believed, fellow Americans whose opinions differ, but “the enemy,” hell-bent on “destroying America,” whose statements are always calculated lies.

At this point in our culture’s history, we must fight for a shared acceptance of reality. We must fight for a return to the critical cultural narrative that evidence and expertise are more important than opinion and belief, and that facts should shape our worldviews, not the other way around.

The arts have more power to shape culture than any politician or political pundit. There are examples of this throughout our history. Sometimes it’s an art-led movement, and sometimes the arts distill, reflect, and popularize something already stirring in the cultural fringes — usually both. But one thing is certain:

This is the most important cultural moment for arts leadership that there has ever been in our lifetimes. We must fight for the existence of observable, verifiable truth.

So what do we do?

Pete Seeger's banjo says "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."
Pete Seeger’s Banjo, photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

We’re arts leaders. It’s time to lead. What does this mean in practical terms?

1. Honor and promote expertise. This means recognizing that an industry centered around white male able-bodied gatekeepers is limited in its understanding of the issues that face our industry and our nation. Hire, center, promote, & share power with marginalized people. Disabled people & BIPOC in particular have been pushed to the margins in our culture and our art. BIPOC are pushing theater, film, and television into a diversity, equity, and inclusion reckoning that’s been a long time coming. Embrace this rather than push against it. Disabled people are still almost completely ignored in DEI work in the theater. LEAD by putting both BIPOC and disabled people into real positions of power at your company and listen to what they have to say about every issue, not just about BIPOC-specific or disabled-specific issues. BIPOC and people with disabilities will have perspectives on general issues that white and able-bodied people lack. We recognize that professional experience grants expertise; this is not controversial. A development person with 20 years of experience has expertise in development; no one questions that. We must also value expertise gained through lived experience as a marginalized person.

2. Act on your principles. Move DEI from an “initiative” to a foundational component of your mission. Move DEI from vague and general to specific and direct. Several white men I was working alongside for the past few years publicly supported Black Lives Matter and #MeToo while simultaneously insisting that Black women in our own organization were “exaggerating” and “wrong” about sexism and racism in our own workplace. Online support is great. It helps shift the zeitgeist. But performative support for victims in high-profile cases of abuse, marginalization, and bigotry in which your personal influence is minimal becomes a depressing joke when you actively work against victims in your own workplace, where your personal influence is deeply consequential. It’s great that you show public support for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, but it’s critical to stand with them in your own organizations. I understand that it’s much easier to denounce someone far away than it is to examine and admit your own complicity, learn and grow from the experience, and commit to finding better ways to navigate your cultural privilege. But it’s work that can’t be avoided if we’re committed to justice. 

3. Reject “balance.” Reject “neutrality.” Now is the time to take sides. Side clearly with the idea that reality exists and that evidence is unchanged by opinion. We’ve gone well beyond Rashomon-style examinations of subjectivity. In our culture, the terms of the debate have been deliberately shifted from “How did this murder happen?” to “Did the murder even take place?” and “Did this person even exist?” We’re seeing it in the shift from “What do we do about Covid?” to “Is Covid really dangerous?” and even “Is Covid even real?” We’re seeing it in the attempted ban on diversity training and the words “systemic racism.” But Covid is a public health crisis no matter how many times they deny it, and systemic racism exists whether they yank federal funding or not. Reality cannot be blackmailed. What does this mean for us in practical terms? Refuse to stage work or host discussions that feature false equivalencies between reality and propaganda. The terms of the discussion must be “What will we do about this issue?” not “Is this issue real?” Do not allow the terms of the debate to include calling hard evidence into question for ideological purposes. In other words: Do not stage Oleanna or any other work that pretends racism, sexism, ableism, or other forms of bigotry might actually just be tools to destroy good white men. These works are not “controversial” or “provocative.” They’re dishonest. No one needs to explore Oleanna’s silly, disingenuous central question “Are accusations of sexism just women exacting revenge because they aren’t smart enough to understand the brilliance of white men?” Stage works that deal with problems honestly. There are plenty of “controversial” and “provocative” plays that honestly explore issues. Remember that everything is political, so all of this applies to fluffy romantic comedies just as much — and likely more — than it does “political theater” with an outwardly political agenda. This extends to all programming. Do not host audience engagement events that include discussions that claim to feature two people from “both sides” of an issue when one side is just dismissing or minimizing the issue. And do not be afraid to ask for help. If you’re unsure, reach out to someone in your org or in the community, or hire a DEI consultant to confidentially help you navigate the situation.

4. Remember who you are. Remember your magic. Remember your power. Make “Guardian of Truth” part of your work. Remember that “truth” includes diverse perspectives. Remember that “truth” doesn’t mean “linear political theater.” Remember that “truth” extends to how you treat every human who touches your organization — staff, audience, press, donors, board, grant officers, passers-by, the dude at Office Depot ringing up your printer cartridges — everyone. I know times are tough. I know not every company will survive. But we will go down fighting. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Your work makes a difference. Your work is powerful.

There’s so much more to discuss, and so much more we can do. This is just the Starter Pack.

Now is the time for arts leaders to lead. Suit up, theater. Let’s go.

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GOP Politicians: Your Five Point Plan to Surviving Trump

Dan Rather tweets: It's tempting to use the analogy of rats fleeing a sinking ship to describe the growing number of Republican elected officials starting to speak out against Donald Trump. But that's not really fair to rats, who tend not to be complicit in driving ships to the bottom of the sea.

I’ve long said that GOP politicians will stand by Trump, no matter how criminal, dangerous, or simply bizarre his behavior is, until the exact second he becomes a political liability. Well, we’re two weeks away from the election, and Republican after Republican — especially Congressional Republicans in tight races — have been tentatively testing the waters of dissent with a few mild, safe criticisms for weeks. Now they’re either arranging for their “private dissent” to be leaked or are publicly stating that they were secretly “concerned” all along as they begin the scramble to distance themselves from the sinking failboat that is Donald Trump. Some examples:

Even die-hard loyalists like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham are publicly discussing the possibility of losing the White House to Democrats. Both Cruz and Graham vociferously opposed Trump in 2016, then made abrupt reversals as soon as he won. Reversals they have both lived to regret — Cruz nearly lost his seat to charismatic upstart Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and Graham is in real danger of losing his to brilliant, heartfelt Jaime Harrison.

And I haven’t even begun talking about Mitt Romney.

In the interest of selfless service like a good Camp Fire Girl (Ret.-CA), I’ve compiled the Five Point Plan for Republicans Looking to Survive Trump. I predict GOP lawmakers will roll out one or more of the following over the next few weeks. Some will roll out all of them for different audiences.

  1. “I’m a new man”: Admit you were wrong and choose a moment when you realized that your best intentions for America and loyalty to the Republican party had led you to support a man who was Bad for America. But at the time, you trusted! You believed! You had misgivings but set them aside because America! And then you met Mrs. Fictional Blackwoman, whose personal story made the scales fall from your eyes, and you realized that you were wrong all along. Then sell the whole thing as a book: American Greatness: The Day I Heroically Believed a Black Woman.
  2. “God’s imperfect vessel”: Rehabilitate his image using selective memory, lies, and racism. Claim that, despite his “rough edges,” “crass tweets,” “tough talk” and “plans to make the US an authoritarian dictatorship,” he still protected good Christian people from Antifa, Black Lives Matter, immigrants from nonwhite countries, and Jewi — I mean (WINK WINK) “globalists”! God used this imperfect vessel for good works.
  3. “The Susan Collins”: All of that support for Trump was just support for the glorious American patriotic Republican party. He was our leader and I owed him loyalty, but secretly I was at the White House every day begging him to be less awful. Look at all the times I said I was “concerned”! I voted with my fellow Republicans out of loyalty to them and to the party, but secretly the entire time I was “concerned.”
  4. “The Defense Counsel Special”: I never read any of those bills. I was just following orders from party leadership. Also Your Honor, I spread slander against the plaintiff only on orders from leadership. I just repeated what Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump told me to say and I had no idea it was Russian propaganda. I apologize to Hunter Biden and to President Biden, and to the American people, and hope that this court will take that into consideration when determining damages.
  5. “The Hail Mary”: But was he really that bad? Like, it could be worse, right? I mean, most people are still alive, right? And unemployment is what, just — oh, God, is it really that high? Um, OK, well, he lowered taxes? I mean, MY taxes went down, so — right; moving on. . .um . . . He was an American patriot who did his best in multiple crises, most of his own making, but he always put American patriots first, especially the great Trump family.

The next days and weeks will reveal which Republicans choose which of these to deploy, but the rats are indeed leaving the sinking ship, with apologies to Dan Rather. Whatever the outcome of the election due to the antiquated foolishness of the electoral college, Trump’s popularity is sinking like a rock, and the Republican party may never fully recover.

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Why It Matters That Trump Called Kamala Harris “This Monster”

Senator Kamala Harris smiles broadly and applauds at an outdoor event.
All photos of Senator Harris are taken from her Senate website, harris.senate.gov.

There’s a lot going on today. The FBI caught a white militia in an attempt to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, evidently believing they were carrying out Trump’s orders to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” Trump’s team is throwing a tantrum over the Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision to make the next debate virtual due to Trump and his team being contagious with a dangerous virus. In an astonishingly dimwitted move, the campaign released a letter denouncing CPD for “trying to protect Joe Biden” (and, one assumes, themselves and everyone who works at the venue). Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) tweeted that he’s against democracy because it “thwarts liberty, peace, and prospefity.” (Ah, prospefity, one of the cofnefstones of ouf gfeat country.)

Senator Mike Lee tweets "Democracy isn't the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that." October 7, 2020. "Prosperity" is misspelled.

But one thing passed quickly this morning that needs a closer look: Trump twice called Senator Kamala Harris “this monster.” I know it seems like just one more thing to toss on the 25th Amendment pile, but it bears particular scrutiny. 

We’ve already seen conservatives (and even some men on the left) pull out every ugly sexist attack in the Tired Old Playbook of Sexist Attacks. Harris is a “madwoman,” a “slut” who “slept her way to the top,” she’s ugly, her voice is “shrill” and “grating.” She’s “ambitious,” which is only a slur when applied to women; when applied to men, it’s a compliment. After the Vice Presidential debate, conservative men– let’s call them “con men” for short– flooded social media with declarations of Harris’ “unlikeability.” That’s truly my favorite. These con men mean she’s “unlikeable” to them. The kind of man who uses that term is, invariably, intimidated by strong, smart women because they’re afraid (usually for good reason) that the women are stronger and smarter than they are. 

“Monster” has been used against women dating back to the fight for women’s suffrage. Women who rejected the idea that women are inferior to men, should be ruled by their husbands, and exist to serve men have historically been called “monsters” whose “monstrosity” is a destructive force against “the American family” and “the American way of life.” Senator Harris, as a powerful, brilliant woman who does not suffer fools gladly, is, to these frightened little men, a “monster.”

Senator Kamala Harris leans down and smiles broadly at an adorable Black boy of about 5, who smiles excitedly.

But to these frightened little con men, Kamala Harris isn’t just a woman– she’s a woman of color. She’s mixed race– her father is a Black man who immigrated from Jamaica and her mother was an Asian woman who immigrated from India. 

When a man like Donald Trump calls Harris “this monster,” he’s not only using a term with a long, sexist history; he’s deploying a racial slur that has been used against both people of color and mixed-race people for hundreds of years. 

“This monster” means she’s not human but sub-human, unworthy of the consideration we owe other human beings. Dangerous, malevolent. “This monster” is a weapon intended to dehumanize.

Dehumanization is the centerpiece of racism. Monstrosity has been attributed to both Black and Asian people throughout US history. It was used as a justification for slavery– these “savage monsters” would become a destructive force if left “uncontrolled,” raping white women and murdering children in their cradles, without the “guidance” of white enslavers. It underpinned the “yellow peril”– these “monsters” are “ruthless” and “heartless” sub-human dangers to upstanding Americans. Brown-skinned people, regardless of culture or ethnicity, were called “monster” after 9/11. “These monsters want to destroy America,” white people say when they attack– and kill– Sikhs in turbans, as far from being Al Qaeda as a white American is from being a White Guelph. These attacks surged after 9/11 and have been increasing, unsurprisingly, in the Trump era, as all racist attacks have been increasing, emboldened by their racist leader tweeting his racism, airing it on television, trumpeting it from the very steps of the White House. “We” are human; “they” are monsters. 

The young woman pictured here with Senator Harris is wearing a CHP Explorer uniform, a program for people 15-21 who are interested in becoming CHP officers.

What’s particularly potent in Trump calling Harris “this monster” is that “monster” has been used for generations as a particular slur against mixed-race people. They don’t “belong” to any one race or ethnicity; they’re “monsters” who don’t belong to any human category, an “unnatural” amalgamation that goes against the “law of God.” This argument was used to justify slavery (abolishing slavery would lead to interracial unions and “monster” children), and then again to justify bans on interracial marriage (again, “monster” children). It’s in use right now, in far-right circles, about mixed-race people. The far right is, right this second, justifying white supremacy and the “purity” of the “white race” by calling mixed-race children “monsters.” 

Donald Trump knows as well as any racist and sexist what it means to call a mixed-race female Senator a “monster.” 

Senator Kamala Harris stands with her hand over her heart.

As with everything in modern conservatism, accusations are confessions. Trump claims Biden and Harris are “liars” and “corrupt,” that Biden is “lazy” and “losing it”– all things that Trump himself is, as the impartial observers outside the US, aghast at what’s happening in America, often discuss. So Trump predictably defends against the widespread claim that he, and the GOP he bullied into his own image, are “monsters” due to their monstrous behavior by calling Senator Harris a “monster,” but the two are not equivalent. Trump and his GOP are monstrous in their speech and actions. 

Trump calls Senator Harris “this monster” because he’s using racism and sexism to appeal to his base, and that racism and sexism makes him, in a word, monstrous.

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When Someone Like Trump Gets Sick

Trump waves from a car after demanding he be taken on a joyride outside the hospital to wave at supporters on October 4. The Secret Service accompanying him now must quarantine for 14 days. (Image: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

While Trump is unique in many ways– we’ve never had an American president who has such obvious disdain for the rule of law and such active hatred for the majority of voters–   in many ways he’s as ordinary as they come. He’s a privileged, pampered, narcissistic bully who’s enthusiastically interested in using his power and privilege to harm others for personal gain. The world is full of such creatures; so full, in fact, that we’ve all worked for several, all of whom fail upwards until they head a company, school– or, in this case, nation–and drive it directly into the ground. 

But while most American Failsons are hazards only to the small number of people in their circles, the President of the United States can wield his power to harm millions of people at a stroke. 

This is why Trump’s Covid diagnosis on either Wednesday (according to his doctor) or Friday (according to the White House) and subsequent hospitalization has been such a contentious issue on the left. The entire point of being liberal is empathy, justice, and fairness. Half of us are enjoying the spectacle of poetic justice unfolding before our eyes while half of us are scolding those people for not being “better than conservatives,” who cheered when Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia during the 2016 campaign and laughed when Trump mocked her for falling ill. 

Trump has repeatedly undermined and attacked pandemic experts, mocked masks, lied about the seriousness of the illness, lied about the contagiousness of the illness, lied about his response to the illness, lied about the number of American deaths, lied about the number of American cases, lied about every aspect of testing. At every turn he has not only lied about the seriousness of the pandemic but also belittled, mocked, and undermined those who took the pandemic seriously and instructed his administration and supporters to do the same 

So when he was diagnosed with Covid and then developed such serious symptoms so quickly he was medevaced to Walter Reed, there was a certain “I told you so” satisfaction on the left. Whether he recovers quickly or worsens, the fact remains that he has very much been hoist by his own petard. 

A meme that states "Hoisted by my own Picard" with an image of Jean-Luc Picard face-palming.

His lies and inaction have cost this country 210,000 lives. And even if you’re a complete lunatic and believe the bizarre conservative spin that it’s actually 6% of that, it’s still 12,600 people dead. He destroyed the crops and salted the fields, then mocked the people for rationing food and begging for help. Now he’s starving, and it’s perfectly understandable to feel some satisfaction at the poetic justice. 

Those on the left who are enjoying the fact that Herod tripped and fell on his own sword during the Massacre of the Innocents are being roundly scolded by people who are claiming we should be “better” and “wish him well” and “not wish illness on others.” As Stephen Robinson writes in Wonkette, you don’t have to feel sorry for Donald Trump. 

A news story by Rebecca Knight entitled "Man Shouts 'Fuck That Alligator,' Jumps Into Lake And Is Killed By Alligator," accompanied by a photo of the man in a straw cowboy hat and sunglassses drinking a beer.

Trump has actively sought to harm an enormous number of people in our nation. He believes wholeheartedly in the conservative principle that there’s an in-group the law protects but does not bind, and an out-group the law binds but does not protect. Liberals oppose this by insisting that all should be treated equally before the law. Those are the two most important functional differences between the right and the left.

The left is, especially today, largely made up of marginalized people. Women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities are all more likely to vote left than right. The only major voting bloc implacably loyal to the GOP is white men. The right is even losing support among white evangelical women. The typical Republican today has an intersectional identity that combines several groups with cultural privilege, and the party is focused solely on shoring up and maintaining that privilege as marginalized groups make incremental– but definite–gains in the fight for equity. 

News article entitled,"Trump supporter shoots himself through the groin in an attempt to 'trigger liberals'"
The Facebook group “Pointing Guns at [B]enis” exists to mock people in favor of gun safety by posting pictures of members pointing loaded guns at their genitalia with their fingers on the trigger and the safety off. Read more here.

The GOP has been relentlessly, aggressively pushing to erode legal and cultural progress made by marginalized groups. The Trump Administration has rolled back protections for every single marginalized group in this nation. At this moment, the Trump Administration is:

*Suing to eliminate the ACA, abruptly canceling health insurance for 20 million Americans, ending all protections for pre-existing conditions, and reinstating discrimination against LGBTQ patients

*Attempting to ban diversity training; they’ve banned any diversity training that mentions “systemic racism” or “privilege” in any arm of the federal government, and have announced that they will no longer do business with any company that uses such trainings, or fund any nonprofits that use such trainings

*Reversing 100 environmental rules, dismantling most of the climate protections the federal government has put in place

*Attempting to end Social Security by defunding it; unlike liberals who come right out and say “defund the police,” when the GOP wants to defund something, they call it a “tax cut” and eliminate its funding source

*Attempting to eliminate funding for public schools that are using distance learning during the pandemic, and divert that funding to private and religious schools– including online conservative Christian homeschooling companies

And that’s just off the top of my head. 

People aren’t just celebrating Trump and his administration (29 people in and around the White House at the time of this writing) experiencing the poetic justice of falling ill with a virus they denied, lied about, and ignored while Americans suffered and died. 

People aren’t just celebrating the fact that the superspreader event appears to be the Amy Coney Barrett nomination party, and that defying Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish has brought her Fruma Sarah vengeance down upon them. 

Jess Dweck tweets, "Thank you to RBG for teaching young girls that they too can grow up to become fearsome specters who rain vengeance down upon those who dare disobey their dying wish."
IF TZEITEL MARRIES LAZAR WOOOOLF

People are celebrating the fact that people who have been relentlessly, aggressively pursuing every possible avenue to harm them  are temporarily sidelined. I don’t think anyone wishes death on Trump– least of all those of us who feel certain that Pence would have a much better chance of beating Biden than Trump does– but seeing him sidelined is, without question, a welcome sight. 

This isn’t about seeing your enemies suffer– that implies that both parties are on equal footing. This is survivors’ laughter, the laughter of relief, the laughter that comes when the killer runs out of bullets, when the Nazi is tricked into ignoring the basement, when the lava stops just at your feet. This is the laughter of a temporary reprieve from destruction. We know we’re not out of the woods just yet. We know there is so much more work to do. But the Bad Guys just tripped and stumbled while they were chasing us, and it’s a moment worth enjoying.

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Is Trump Planting Undercover FBI Agents in Schools?

I’ve been job hunting for months. As someone with many years of teaching experience under my belt, I have alerts set for education-related positions on several job sites. The entire time I’ve been searching, I’ve been seeing job postings from the FBI looking for “experienced teachers.” Here’s a screenshot of an ad I found on LinkedIn in June. It says they’re “no longer accepting applications,” but this same ad has been reposted many times targeting cities all over the US. 

A LinkedIn job posting from the FBI that advertises for "Special Agent: Education/Teaching." The body of the ad says the FBI is looking for people "with expertise in education and teaching."

Here are a few screenshots from LinkedIn that show some of the breadth of the FBI recruitment of teachers:

The nest three pictures are all screenshots of LinkedIn listings. There are twelve job postings in all; all from the FBI. Nine are for "Special Agent: Education/Teaching" and three are for "Special Agent."

There are many more. The job posts labeled “Special Agent” list “EDUCATION/TEACHING” as a special skill for which they’re specifically recruiting. 

Back in June, I posted to my personal social media accounts about this, speculating that the FBI was planning to put undercover operatives in American classrooms to spy on educators who were teaching things the GOP calls “liberal indoctrination,” such as climate science, ethnic studies, critical race theory, race-based demographics, and history that centers the experience of BIPOC (such as the 1619 Project or discussions of the genocide of Native peoples). In June, this was just speculation.

Well, the other shoe has dropped. Now we have this:

Donald Trump tweets an article from Breitbart titled, "Trump Orders Purge os 'Critical Race Theory' from Federal Agencies" and comments, "This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue." Russ Vought retweets Trump's Tweet,. commenting, "Last week Donald Trump asked people to report any sightings of Critical Race Theory 'training.' We have been working with agencies to identify un-American trainings. We have set up an email to report these sightings. These must be stopped!" Vought supplies the email address underneath.

Trump and Russ Vought, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, are, astonishingly, urging Americans to report other Americans for “un-American” activity. Once again, the US Government is demanding that Americans “name names” in order to ruin the careers and lives of fellow Americans. Joseph McCarthy lives. 

A lot of people confuse McCarthy with the House Un-American Activities Committee of a few years prior. While McCarthy didn’t run the HUAC, its focus on rooting out “Communist infiltration” and its abusive tactics are all part of what we now call “the McCarthy era.” McCarthy campaigned for his Senate seat on paranoid delusions of a Deep State, supposedly made up of Communists who had “infiltrated” the government and were attempting to destroy it from within. Sound familiar?

Once in the Senate, Joseph McCarthy became more insistent that “Communists” had “infiltrated” the US government. He forced hundreds of loyal Americans into hearings that were notoriously insulting and hostile. All the Democrats on his committee resigned, and, eventually, bit by bit, McCarthy lost Republican support as well, leaving the hearings in the hands of himself and his attack dog, Roy Cohn. 

In 1954, they decided to take on the US Army, accusing it of being controlled by their imaginary Communist Deep State. The Army-McCarthy hearings ended, along with McCarthy’s public support and career, with Army attorney Joseph Welch’s immortal words, “Have you no sense of decency?” McCarthy died just three years later, but Roy Cohn returned to New York, where he eventually took on a protegé– Donald Trump

Two black and white pictures of Donald Trump abd Roy Cohn. In the top image, Trump speaks into several press microphones as Cohn looks on. In the second, Trump and Cohn wear tuxedos and stand with former NYC mayor Ed Koch.
Donald Trump with Roy Cohn (and, in the second image, Ed Koch.) (Photo: “El diablo que enseñó a golpear a Trump El presidente resucita la figura de su mentor y compañero de juergas, Roy Cohn, inquisidor mcCarthista y abogado de mafiosos” by rupertomiller@hotmail, Creative Commons license.)

Trump, then in his 30s, was (for once in his life) a good student. Now, 40 years later, Trump has used what he learned from Cohn and taken the tactics of McCarthy’s Red Scare to create his own Red Hat Scare. The Office of Management and Budget has provided a handy email address to use to turn your neighbors and coworkers in for ”any sightings of critical race theory trainings” because Trump has decided that discussions of racism are “un-American” activities. 

How is Trump defining “un-American”? The average American has no idea what “critical race theory” is, so Trump’s relentless lies about it provide the definition. Trump has attacked anything that mentions white privilege or systemic racism, anything supportive of protests for racial justice, and anything that says the words “Black lives matter.” He has, after years of these attacks, variously referred to anything related to the struggle for racial justice  as “Antifa,” “the radical left,” and, now, “critical race theory.” He clearly thinks “critical” means “to criticize” rather than “to think critically,” and assumes the fight for racial justice is an attack on white people– specifically, on him. 

A young Black woman with long, wavy hair parted in the middle, stands at a protest, wearing a face mask and holding a sign that says: "AM I NEXT? Police killings violate my right to due process! The Death Penalty on the streets!"
A protester in Washington, DC. (Photo: “George Floyd Black Lives Matter Protest, 14th & U Streets, 5/29/20 [Explored]” by Geoff Livingston, Creative Commons license)

The Trump Administration has imagined a nefarious purpose for any type of education or training around race, and is instructing its cult followers to “report” any “sighting” of it in “Federal Agencies.” And while it’s comforting to assume Trump means in his own administration only by “Federal Agencies,” remember that he has already said that schools and universities that teach “critical race theory” will be cut off from federal funding, so he has already very much included them in this. They’re clearly seeing public education as a “Federal Agency,” and any kind of education as a potentially “un-American training.” Just yesterday, the Department of Education announced it is “investigating” Princeton University– a private university– just for saying publicly that systemic racism exists. Princeton’s admission that systemic racism exists on campus is being weaponized against them in a clear attempt by the Trump Administration to bully educators and intimidate us from discussing the realities of systemic racism. 

And the FBI has been trying to recruit experienced educators for months. 

Are there undercover FBI agents currently placed in schools and universities? Is this what Vought means by “working with other agencies”– like the FBI– to “identify un-American trainings”? 

In addition to the Princeton announcement yesterday, Trump once again directly targeted schools for “un-American” education, and he announced the formation of a “national commission to promote patriotic education.” How long will it be before he sends DeVos or even Barr to investigate an HBCU? Or the University of Chicago’s Race & Ethnic Studies Department? Or the New York Public School District? 

Since nearly anything can be termed “un-American trainings,” this is clearly a weapon used to silence discussions of race in America. Past experience teaches us that any weapon Trump has will be used in service to his personal grievances, and that both William Barr and the Senate GOP will enable every corrupt, horrific abuse he cares to commit. 

Whether there are undercover FBI agents placed to surveil schools and universities or not, make no mistake: This is about targeting and silencing BIPOC people, especially Black people, and their allies. Trump isn’t satisfied gassing, shooting, or disappearing protesters for racial justice; he’s not satisfied with the prospect of using a supervillain-style heat ray against them. Now he wants to prevent us from even discussing racism.  

A photo of a granite monument carbed with, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; of abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, 15 December 1791."
Photo: “First Amendment to the US Constitution” by elPadawan, Creative Commons license

Think about this email address and the Trump Administration’s urging that the public “report” any “un-American trainings” to the Office of Management and Budget. 

What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with a report that Ms. Kennedy taught “critical race theory” in her 10th grade English class by having students read a chapter from Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race? What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with a report that Dr. Abiola, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, required his department to do a day-long retreat on anti-racist pedagogy? What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with the fact that nearly every university in the nation has an ethnic studies department? 

And what will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with the information that schools and universities won’t begin pretending that white privilege and systemic racism do not exist just because Trump demands it? Does Trump imagine he can intimidate HBCUs into lying about the lived experience of their faculty and students? Does Trump think we will all just set aside the mountain of data we have on these topics because he said so?

Trump will not win this fight. 

More Americans believe racial and ethnic discrimination is a major problem in America than support Donald Trump

More Americans support Black Lives Matter than support Donald Trump

Trump is dreaming if he thinks ethnic studies courses can be bullied out of existence. In 2017, Mike Pence’s own home state of Indiana passed a law requiring all Indiana high schools to offer an ethnic studies course at least once a year.

Trump. Will. Not. Win. This. Fight. 

Trump does not get to define “un-American.” We will not sit silently by while Trump defines “un-American” as “BIPOC.” We will not sit silently by while Trump demands punishment for BIPOC speaking out about the truth of their lives. 

Pull your [ALLEGED, ugh] undercover FBI agents out of our schools and universities, Don. 

We will not sit silently by while Trump tries to force this nation into a new era of McCarthyism. 

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Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

Parts of this post were originally patron-only content on Patreon. Become a Bitter Gertrude patron! Your support of my work makes posts like these possible.

“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Seeing Place, NYC

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

While this pandemic is, as the youngsters say, for the birds (my imaginary youngsters are all living in 1943), one of its silver linings is the accessibility of performances all over the world. As a Californian, I would have had no access to a production in New York. Now it’s as easy as clicking a link.

Artists always find a way. You can’t stop art, and the supposed “death of theatre” has been breathlessly reported many times, with the cause of death listed first as radio, then film, television, and, of course, the internet. Art is life, and life– according to the sage Jeff Goldblum– finds a way.

So I was excited to see what The Seeing Place Theater in New York had done to make Midsummer, often a very physical show, work on the Zoom platform. I know many people decry Zoom-based theater and long for a return to in-person shows. I long for in-person shows as well, but the creativity artists are showing as they play with this new format is, honestly, delightful.

Pictured; the logo of The Seeing Place Theater, white lettering on a black background, accompanied by a white S-curve with a blue eye in both parts of the curve.

The Seeing Place’s Midsummer is a small-cast show with each actor playing multiple roles. TSP utilizes animation, designed by Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, as costuming, and while its execution was not always perfect, it was a lot of fun to see. The standout effect was Bottom’s animated ass head, which was a lot of fun. The fairy ensemble– Moth, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom– were animated fairies with the actors’ faces. Major character fairies like Titania & Oberon had animated effects that gave their eyes, hair, and/or faces magical elements. Again, the technology wasn’t perfect, but I would have killed to have the ability to make lightning shoot out of a fairy’s eyes in any of my live productions of Midsummer.

The actors appear in individual squares against a magical forest background. Puck is wearing a black lace shirt and Oberon has lightning shotting out of his eyes. Titania wears a flower crown. Two of the three minor fairies appear as tiny, flying fairies with the actors' faces. The third is human-sized with digital fairy makeup.

Pictured from left to right: Top row: Jon L. Peacock as Puck, Erin Cronican as Peaseblossom, and William Ketter as First Fairy. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Moth, Laura Clare Browne as Titania, and Brandon Walker as Oberon.

One thing that’s challenging for some actors is code switching from theater acting to camera work, especially the monologue-like format of Zoom theater. Most of the TSP actors had this down, but the star of the show was co-director Erin Cronican, who played both Helena and Peter Quince. Her character creation and immaculate comic timing were a real treat to watch. I was constantly engaged by Cronican’s performance, and found myself laughing out loud alone in my Ready Room at Cronican’s well-crafted and deeply detailed comic moments. Cronican’s Peter Quince monologue at the top of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play is one of the best renderings I’ve seen in years. Cronican knows exactly what’s funny about every moment of this play, and serves it up to her audience masterfully. Other standouts were William Ketter’s blustery and egotistical Demetrius, Brandon Walker’s fatuous Theseus, and Laura Clare Browne’s joyful Titania. The adorable Ellinor DiLorenzo had some very nice moments as Hermia as well, but there were some moments she seemed to lose focus, which, admittedly, is really easy to do in this new format, where actors are juggling technology in addition to acting directly to a camera. Perhaps the greatest challenge of this kind of acting is to maintain your focus on the camera when your scene partner is (generally speaking) below it. But overall, the cast was solid and enjoyable to watch.

I’d like to tip my hat to stage manager Shannon K. Formas, who made the tech smoother than most Zoom performances. She had a lot on her plate and pulled it off seamlessly.

The LGBTQ+ theme was evident in the Hermia/Lysander love story, as both were cast with women. Some of the minor fairies and Puck were given androgynous looks, and the actor playing Puck, Jon L. Peacock, identifies as nonbinary. Pronouns were included in the program, which should be industry standard. Importantly, this production is a benefit for the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth.

The actors appear in individual squares against a nighttime forest background.

Pictured: Top row: William Ketter as Demetrius and Erin Cronican as Helena. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Lysander and Ellinor DiLorenzo as Hermia.

One of the main reasons I was interested in this production is that two of the actors– Cronican and Ketter– are people with disabilities, and PWDs are deeply underrepresented in theater. Both of them have invisible disabilities, often glossed over in discussions of disability outside the PWD community. In a culture in which PWDs are relentlessly bombarded with accusations of “exaggerating” for “attention,” “drugs,”or “special treatment,” and often go through months (or even years) of doctors insisting symptoms are “imaginary” until finally running the right test and landing on the correct diagnosis, those whose disabilities are invisible face a very specific kind of cruel marginalization.

The fact that the disabilities of the actors aren’t visible doesn’t make their identities as PWDs any less real or important. What I appreciated most about Cronican and Ketter in this show is that their disabilities aren’t the focus of the story. When PWDs are represented in the theater, it’s almost always a story about disability in some way, and cast with an able-bodied actor. PWDs haven’t even reached the most basic level of inclusion in theater, let alone equity. Disability is still almost entirely ignored even just in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Including actors with disabilities in roles that are not defined by disability, in a play that isn’t about disability, is a refreshing change.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable production of Midsummer, and it couldn’t be for a better cause.

A recorded version of The Seeing Place’s Zoom production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is streaming through September 5th. Click here for tickets. Click here for more information about TSP’s 2020-21 season.

Want me to review your Zoom production? Email bittergertrude@gmail.com.

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Autonomy and Disability on Stage: The Seeing Place’s Midsummer

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

The Seeing Place’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays August 28 at 7PM EDT and August 29 at 3PM EDT. For tickets, click here.

Yesterday I sat down (virually) with Erin Cronican and William Ketter of The Seeing Place Theater in New York to talk about their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening tonight! The production is, of course, on Zoom, so wherever you are, you can still grab a ticket and attend. I’ll be attending this afternoon’s performance (7PM Eastern; 4PM Pacific) and doing a longer write-up later, but I wanted to give you some highlights about why I’m excited to see this piece and give you a chance to see it with me before the piece comes out. (If not, one of the live performances will be recorded and posted online after the show closes).

First of all, it’s a benefit production for homeless LGBTQ youth. To quote their site: “This play is being presented as a benefit for The Ali Forney Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ youths from the harms of homelessness and empower them with the tools needed to live independently.” What’s not to love about that?

aliforney_logo

The Ali Forney Center is located in New York. Learn more about them by clicking here

But here’s what really hit home for me: This production of Midsummer is part of their 10th season, themed around “The Body Politic.” They’re presenting Midsummer as a story about the fight for autonomy and self-determination.

In this production, Lysander and Hermia are a lesbian couple, foregrounding the difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth in accessing the community acceptance needed to support self-determination. You can only determine your own destiny if people with power are not hostile to that destiny and using their power and privilege to disrupt it.

Hermia is given the choice to marry the man her father chooses, become a nun, or die. And while this play is 400 years old, many LGBTQ youth are forced into similar choices. Some legal progress has been made, but LGBTQ youth are still 140% more likely to experience homelessness than their peers. Parents are still throwing their transgender kids out into the street, or abusing them because they can’t perform their gender or sexuality according to parental specifications, driving LGBTQ youth to run away to seek a safer environment. The Ali Forney Center has a waiting list of over 100 kids a night just looking for a safe place to sleep.

While LGBTQ-focused productions of Midsummer are admittedly no longer rare, what is rare is The Seeing Place’s understanding that these issues are intersectional in casting two actors with disabilities: Erin and William.

ErinCronican2

Erin Cronican is also the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place. (Source: seeingplacetheater.com)

People with disabilities, especially PWDs whose intersectional identities include other marginalized aspects, such as queer PWDs and BIPOC with disabilities, face enormous roadblocks to bodily autonomy and self-determination. Youth with disabilities must struggle against an ableist society that relentlessly seeks to infantilize PWDs, deny our self-determination, deny our autonomy, and frame us as sexless beings whose primary purpose is to provide a framework for able-bodied people as they perform “generosity” and “gratitude.”

Disability is routinely– even aggressively– shut out of discussions of privilege and marginalization. In my last teaching job, I pointed out that we had disability mentioned as part of our “commitment to diversity,” but that we had not even done any information gathering around disability, let alone begun anything approaching equity and inclusion work. Instead of committing to beginning that work, they responded that they would just remove disability from the list.

Disability is almost invisible in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, exacerbated by the fact that PWD representation in media is almost nonexistent, and when we do appear, it’s mostly inspiration porn.

So I’m very excited to see how they approach this play with these issues in mind! I’ll be posting a longer write-up about it early next week. See you at the theatre!

Theatres! If you would like to me write about your Zoom production, contact me at bittergertrude@gmail.com. 

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