Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tennessee Williams Fest in New Orleans

Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival
By Phil LaMancusa
Debbie Lindsey
Phil here: This year the 24th annual TWNOLF, march 24-28 is right on track to whack your stockings from your feet, a plethora of knowledge imparted with euphemisms abounding and entertainment without parallel. Being over a year in preparation a splendid time is guaranteed for all; Tennessee Williams, whose birth anniversary celebration will be included in this auspicious event, will top the bill. Twenty-five panel discussions and eight master classes will be available for your edification, education and enlightenment. Master thespians will entertain and astound to the amazement and delight of all attendees and audiences. Prerequisite mint juleps as well as contemporary and classic literary works will be provided for purchase and enjoyment. Commiseration over the great writer’s untimely demise and celebration of his prolific career, amongst those who aspire to erudition is encouraged.
That being said: try to put a finger on Tennessee and you’ve missed him completely. He considered success as a catastrophe and his fantasies as documentaries. His characters were nothing if not passionate, opinionated, outspoken, dangerous and charming. Nothing like the folks that we see in our lives, for the most part; people of our acquaintance simply do not have the stamina, freedom of expression or fortitude of a Tennessee Williams character. In comparison we are muted, and those that attend the event usually want to know why we just don’t measure up; in our writings and, very possible, in our lives.
Tennessee Williams to me is the peephole into the door of outrageous characters and unimaginable plot twists so common in Southern literature. From a Northern perspective, upon discovering Tennessee and his brethren I was amazed, confounded, flummoxed, overjoyed and thoroughly smitten.
Debbie puts it into a more Southern perspective and she points out that the fact of having been born and raised in Southern Alabama had little if any influence upon her being southern. If anything, she rejected her southern zip code. She did not notice whatever Southern sway her hometown may have had upon her until years later. She explains that “It’s like I was potted in the rich soil of the south and then moved away from my indigenous beginnings. I never physically left but my disconnect with this region placed me light years away – constantly in conflict with my root base. But that began to change with the reading of what has now come to be called books of Southern literature….by Southern writers”.
“Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides spoke to me and put into words the love/hate I had felt towards the South. I had held more biased and preconceived negative notions about the South than any tight ass from afar might have. Somehow Conroy’s characters showed me that one can love an imperfect culture, that I need not distance myself from the beauty to avoid the evils. And evil does abound through ignorance and racism”.
And on and on through Faulkner, O’Conner, Nordan, Hiaasen, Welty, Percy, Hellman and Harper Lee. And on and on. Flagg, Bragg, Grafton, Albee, Gibbons and on and on and on again. The ramblings and imaging’s that have taken root like wild flowers in writers and aspiring writers brain pans, who come together at festivals and conferences to explore the tickings of the clocks, the workings of the gears, the firing of the synapses that cause one person to put to pen and paper the views from the inside of their image nations.
For those of us who are addicted to the written word, for those of us who had flashlights under the covers finishing a book after bed time, for us who need to know something more about language and possibility; festivals like this are our bread and bone.
Each year as we write about TWNOLF subconsciously we’re plotting our own attendance and how much of this experience we can cram into our lives. It’s always too fast, too short and over way too soon. For the line up of luminaries and schedules of events go to the program is now available and the box office is open. See you there.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

NOCCA in New orleans

Who’s Skilling The Artists Of New Orleans?
Phil LaMancusa
Each year, quietly, without fanfare (well, with the amount of quietness and lack of fanfare that anyone can expect from geniuses in teenage bodies), almost nine hundred students make their way across New Orleans to the halls of one of the most famous learning centers of our universe.
These are kids (young adults) that have chosen and been chosen to pursue futures in literature, the arts, music and theater. These are the actors, poets, visual artists, novelists, media artists, opera singers, dancers, creative writers, jazz and classical musicians that are our equivalent of the movie ‘Fame’. They come from all backgrounds, walks of life, neighborhoods and circumstances. They are the future standard bearers and young lions of the talent gene pool that make our city a cultural Mecca. These are not students that are flown in, bussed in or relocated to New Orleans. By in large, these are local young talents that have made a conscious decision to accept the challenge of dedication and hard work toward the goal of becoming, not just good, but, great artists in their chosen fields.
NOCCA, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, has been with us for almost thirty-five years. NOCCA has itself graduated from humble experimental beginnings in a dilapidated grammar school in 1973 to a thirty million dollar, 136,000 sq. foot state of the art Magnet school facility of performance theaters, classrooms, and rehearsal studios with up to date technology and resources in 1990. Ninety five to ninety eight percent of graduates of NOCCA continue their studies, pursuing careers after colleges and universities various arts programs have been completed.
How do you get to NOCCA? Practice, practice, practice. Since becoming a state agency in 1990 tuition has been free to Louisiana residents. The only thing you need to do after being recommended by your High School teachers and writing an essay explicating your worthiness is to succeed in impressing faculty at an audition. It’s that simple. Yeah, right.
The honor roll of graduates in the various fields is enough to make the most jaded talent agent choke on his Cheerios. Harry Connick jr., musician and actor; Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, musicians; Wanda Boudreaux, visual artist; Jeanne-Michele Charbbonnet, opera singer; Nicole Cooley, novelist and poet; Donald Harrison jr., jazz musician; Darren Bagert, Broadway producer; Wendel Pierce, actor and Rosalynd Sanders, dancer. Or try these: Nicholas Payton, Trombone Shorty Andrews, Terrence Blanchard, and Irvin Mayfield. Tough role models and large footsteps to follow.
Here’s the way it is: Christian Scott is twelve years old and is given a trumpet by his mother and grandmother. Christian Scott possesses, at twelve years old, the four main qualities that NOCCA Riverfront requires of students; talent, self-direction, discipline and commitment. Sounds pretty simple, huh? Well, no, it’s not.
For a NOCCA student life is anything but easy. You are not let off the hook from your academic studies or curriculum at your High School. Most likely you have struck a deal whereby you attend both schools. Going to class at your High School during the morning, eating lunch on the way across town and attending classes at NOCCA in the afternoon is a common scenario. The teachers at NOCCA are more dedicated than the students, they have successful professional and teaching experience and continue in their professional arts involvement when not teaching. It is a requirement. If indeed it is the students responsibility to surpass the Master; it is also the Masters responsibility to stay ahead of the student.
For example, Ellis Marsalis; New Orleans premier jazz pianist is mentor and professor of many of the students and graduates. He caught the fever well before his teenage years, being enrolled in formal studies at the Xavier University school of music at age eleven. Mr. Marsalis literally took a road less traveled and maintained his musical drive even while raising six sons on a teaching salary in the 1960s. Next time that you see him, ask him about moonlighting on Bourbon St. to keep ends meeting at a joint called Crazy Shirley’s. Never stopping, but continuing that drive, Ellis Marsalis maintains a fuller schedule at seventy two than musicians and teachers half his age, setting an example of what a true master is all about.
What it amounts to is passion, what it amounts to is drive, what it amounts to is the love of your art and craft from an early age. As someone put it: “it ain’t about easy”.
Irvin Mayfied calls NOCCA a natural fit for New Orleans. He says: “in North Carolina you have kids with basketballs…in New Orleans you have kids with trumpets.” Another Director puts it: “the strength of the Center stems from its students and faculty.”
NOCCA sustained damage from wind and rain but no flooding from hurricane Katrina unlike eighty percent of the rest of the city. Students moving back to attend school at NOCCA returned to a battered and broken city and many had to find places to live, family and friends helped out. January ’06 after the storm saw enrollment at seventy percent. As of this writing, enrollment is at one hundred percent.
There literally is no other place like it and other states have sent study groups to see what makes it tick so that they can reproduce it at home. For me it’s like gumbo, you cannot reproduce New Orleans gumbo anywhere else. It’s the water we drink, it’s the air we breathe, it’s in the blood of our fathers. The heart pulse of New Orleans could not have but produced NOCCA. Louis Armstrong credited his stint at the Boys Home with his first trumpet and his success in life. Where else but in New Orleans does a waif get a musical instrument and a chance at greatness?
It is the stated vision of NOCCA to “manifest the highest standards in arts training, enriching the cultural environment of Louisiana and increasing recognition of Louisiana artists throughout the world.” Sounds good to me.
P.S. Christian Scott is not yet twenty years old and is now at Berkeley with the Jazz ensemble there. He is already a celebrity in his own right. The way it works at NOCCA is that the students rise to great heights because----they can.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stone Soup in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
First Generation Americans
Too Many Characters
Many depressions occurred in New York City in 1927 the big one was the beginning of what is now called The Great Depression. Another smaller but no less devastating depression effected the young life of a nine year old girl named Helen. Her mother died.
The passing of Agnes Weckworth left Helen and her four siblings in the custody of a stumble bum father who promptly and without ceremony, did his worst by them, and so it was that the Weckworth children: Grace, Paul, Helen, Charles and Dorothy were relinquished to their fates. Blown to the winds.
As we all know, fortune has a way of certainly not making the best of things and the children were scattered haphazardly. The two eldest, Grace and Paul were abandoned to the streets of lower Manhattan to fend for themselves; Helen was sent to an aunt May and uncle Michael Hendricks in Brooklyn. Charley and his father moved into a furnished room and Dottie was sent to an orphan’s home run by sadistic nuns. The kids would not lose track of each other until one after another would die in relative obscurity fifty to sixty years later, in their turn, in their time, never leaving a great mark on society; as would be the fate of their children and their children’s children.
Charley, after the death of his mother, and, by age seven, was paying his way by selling newspapers in the subway, picking them up for two cents and selling them for three. He would board a train in the foremost car and work his way to the back, hawking, until he exhausted his supply and himself, car after car, train after train. He had to tape his money to the outside brick wall of the room that he shared with his father to keep his dear papa from stealing it to finance the paternal binges. Grace became an alcoholic and whore by thirteen. Paulie lived under people’s staircases until finding his niche in petty crime at eleven, Helen was sent to Catholic schools and Dot learned the humility of scrubbing floors on her hands and knees at age six. Such was life in New York City in the 1930’s.
Meanwhile, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Fillipo LaMancusa, in his late thirties had had a wife sent over from his village in Sicily. It didn’t matter to him that his bride to be, Carmela, was only fourteen years old. No one asked if it mattered to her. She would give birth to six children, (five before the age of nineteen) Albert, Catena, the triplets Antonio, Tinero and Giuseppe and the youngest daughter Maria; they all suffered together on a small farm. Their futures were wrapped up in truck farming, coal mining and being dirt poor. The children, except for Maria were heathens to say the least and were beaten and abused with less than positive results. Al was the first to run away and he hauled ass to New York City to seek his fortune in 1935. He rented a flat on Eighth Avenue between 20th and 21st Street. Al would die of tuberculosis right around his twenty second birthday. Coal mines… what can you say?
Also around 1935, Charlie was making enough money to afford a place of his own and as long as his father never found out where he was staying could live in relative peace; he found a flat in the same building as Al, in fact, directly across the hall from him. They didn't know eachother but that would change.
What can I tell you about lives of lesser consequence? Are they any different from that of the princes or poets? Do their lives have any less validity because they live and die in relative obscurity? As the Bard queries: “if you cut them, do they not bleed?”
A typical punishment for Katie was to be locked in a closet without clothing and fed a teaspoon of holy water three times a day. If that didn’t satisfy her parents, she would be tied to the staircase by her long black hair, again naked, and beaten with belts that had been soaked in a pail of water. It was this type of treatment that sent her running to her big brother in New York.
And now shall I tell you of that fateful night when Helen was visiting Charley and there was a commotion across the hall caught their attention and as it turned out, the commotion happened to be Katie, at Al’s, threatening to commit suicide? Shall I tell you of the meeting of Helen and Al and their future marriage? Or maybe point out that not one of the four of them at that moment had reached their twentieth birthday?
This is the mentioning in passing of the children that were my parent’s generation and I and their other children are the only ones that know their stories. They came of age without safety nets and lived by their wits and wiles through hard times that never got good.
Gathering their complete stories would be like making Stone Soup and I look forward to doing that. For now I remember what I’ve heard and what I’ve been told. I am gifted with a good memory and I’ve heard lots.
In this day and age the stories do not make much impact on the world at large; but remember, this is a blog that will go to the ethers and remain like a shard of pottery from an archeological dig. In the blog there are other stories of this cast of characters, miscreants all from whom I draw my life and breath.
Wait until I tell you about how Helen, after Al’s death, had to marry his brother Joe, my father, who was so angry at the world that he lashed out with his fists when frustrated which was fairly often and how my mother only was able to extricate us from and his physical abuse when he and his brother Tony knocked over a pawn shop and she threatened to turn him in unless he cleared out. This ain’t television, Buddy.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Escape from New York

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Not Your House Anymore
Alice Blue Gown
Growing up in the lower west side of Manhattan was not as hard for myself or my siblings as it had been for the grown-ups around us. It was extremely difficult for our parent’s generation and we were consistently and constantly reminded of the hardships that they had gone through, were going through and could look forward to enduring, as their travails were now compounded by the burden of being saddled with a bunch of ungrateful, ungraceful and uncontrollable heathens that neither rod nor religion could tame; which were neither spared nor tempered. Beatings and bibles were quite liberally applied, especially when we, the cause of their affliction, pointed out the lack of control that we had in being put in this precarious position (life) to begin with; it was to confession or concussion for the likes of us unless we blindly followed certain ‘rules’, at which point, the adult portion of the conversation ended with the caveat “as long as you live in MY house”.
The adult behavioral patterns and social mores exhibited around me were steeped in the traditions of illogic passed down through generations of ignorance and to any child’s eye they made absolutely no sense. From my middle child vantage and the perpetual soup that I found myself embroiled in, the adult world was cruel, unjust and thoroughly and unimaginably attractive to me. Grown ups were masters of their world but not the world around them and it was the world that was wrong and not them. Their logic was irrefutable. Adults to my young ken were responsible only to themselves and their peers, they came and went with impunity, they drank, they fought, they said mean things, and meant them, and they told kids what to do; kids had to obey on threat of death or worse or else, period.
There was nothing more mysteriously glamorous to me than a group of adults getting together and getting drunk, chain smoking, singing, dancing and eventually getting into fist-fights, plus, they never had to eat the crusts of their pieces of pizza before taking another slice. I couldn’t wait to grow up.
My older sisters were disciplined and devoted, the younger kids were irreverent and calculating; the middle child was Wednesday’s child and full of woe. My mother, Big Red, the reigning autocrat, believed that my ambitions to become an artist would lead me to a future that included the wearing of a beret, the growing of a goatee, the getting of tattoos and the marriage of myself to an oriental woman and, she was having none of it. To me, it sounded like heaven, I was looking forward to getting a four-masted schooner inked to my chest as soon as I could and wondered what the older guys meant when they said “you know what they say about Chinese girls?” I sure was looking forward to finding that out.
Meanwhile, I was in love with a girl in my class that fell in love with every type of boy but my type. I lost ground to the athlete, the teenage misogynist and that kid that played saxophone in the school band with wavy black hair. I was way ahead of the curve, for it wasn’t for decades that being a sensitive male animal became an attractive trait. What was attractive then was the kid from down the block that had gone into the Navy and walked around on shore leave in his uniform, a girl on his arm and a case of beer on his shoulder. One of those swaggering swabbies would eventually marry my oldest sister.
My kid brother got off lucky. Having two older sisters gave my mother not a clue about how to handle an energetic, troublesome and graceless curiosity of a child with a penis. There was no precedent, no previous guide nor manual of instruction. I, having never been born before (that I knew of), had no idea of who I was supposed to be and with an aplomb worthy of a master thespian proceeded to do everything the exactly the wrong way. My brother was cunning enough to skirt the havoc that surrounded me in the innocent tactless swathe I cut through my childhood and the patience and peace of mind of all around me.
Little did I consider myself a trail blazer, however in retrospect I can only credit myself with my kid brother’s ability to successfully cross busy streets against traffic, participate in harmless five finger discounts, seek the sanctity of a secret childhood identity and to tell the truth or lie as the circumstances might warrant.
That all changed with puberty, mine that is, as my hormones began to stir, my boundaries expanded, my responsibilities to the family life increased and my face exploded with acne. I no longer became an annoyance to my mother for running across Tenth Avenue (against the traffic) to filch shards of ice from the ice truck while the driver wrestled a block into the tavern across the street, wicked weapon looking tongs being the only balance, his shoulder protected by a burlap sack. She seemed reconciled to the fact that I would meander on errands, want to spend time alone in my room listening to the black music station and want to go out and be with other teenagers to do “nothing”. She was not patient with my predisposition to periodically run away from home.
I had become indispensable to the execution of the evening meal, I brought income to the household by selling newspapers on the street, and in bars, at night and I was becoming too big to beat. Besides, she could send me out to pick her up a six pack more than once an evening and be a focal point for her ridicule, bad temper and mental cruelty. Can you say that about your very own mother? Sure, I just did.
I decided to leave once and for all, to achieve my dream of independence and made my final escape plan. In a nutshell, I would attend extra classes to graduate early and deliver an ultimatum to the goddess of the universe, declaring my intended freedom from restriction in exchange for family support. My backup plan was well in place, plan B.
I stopped listening when my mother’s response began with the words “as long as you live in MY house…” and instead of hearing that tone of harangue that I had come to know so well, came the song “Anchor’s away, my boy, anchor’s away…” and I could not but smile.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Death Threat in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Veritas Vos Liberabit
Drive You To Drink
Well, the truth is that nouns (persons, places, things) get old (if they live long enough), wear out and break down or bust. The razor that just got good now shaves like a hacksaw blade that’s been in one too many jail breaks, the light bulb suddenly burns out all by itself and the door now does not close behind you without brute force being employed. Your door keys stick.
You’ve just been pulled over by the cops because, out of nowhere, your tail lights have ceased to come on and the slow tire deflation in the front right and miniscule oil leak are more minor annoyances that try your patience; the light flashes on that reminds you that the windshield wiper fluid needs replenishing. And, that’s the start of your day.
Business sucks all over and monetary obligations loom on the immediate horizon; You’ve been at work for three hours and haven’t made a sale yet. The mailman arrives with more bills that will become due before the money has a chance to make it’s way to your coffers. Illusive income, nebulous currency. Taking from Peter to pay Paul only works until Peter peters out and then somebody has to replenish Peter and that, my friend, is just not happening in this economy. It sucks being Paul.
I hate the way that things on the physical plane come with expirations as much as I hate not having the resources to mend, replace or breathe life back into premature failings that come with age or faulty design. I hate that there is a lack of material magic in my world and I hate having no control over what befalls me and what befalls the things that I get attached to and/or care about. It simply should not be part of my existence to be thwarted in the pursuit of a meaningful, satisfactory and satisfying life. And spiritual awakening? The truth be told, like it or not, there will not be time to fully realize my spiritual potential because somewhere in the heavens, in that great unknown, there is an expiration date… on me.
Okay, so now we’re getting into a fear of death rant, conscious or unconscious, right? Well, suspect that if you will, and, of course, you might be correct, and you might also be that person that life has treated with more (or less) kindness than it has me and wonder what the heck I have to complain about. And I might just be the person to counter with “what the fuck do you know?”
It is in my nature to complain, to rail against the machine, to question authority, to doubt the existence of a higher power. It is in my nature to seek a level of satisfaction greater than that which I have and become very, very inconvenienced when things don’t go the way I would like them to or have the outcome that I expect. Am I so much different than say, you?
I wasn’t like this when I was younger, at least not to this extent; but, I’m older now and the immortality of youth is getting thrown into my face akin to a childish fantasy as the fact of more years behind me than before me becomes a blatant reality. I am the weatherman that did not predict this outcome, try as I may, I cannot call the shots being fired across my brow.
As the soft bright light of spring sunshine diffuses itself through the window and caresses the bed which I share and the room itself, festooned with art and literature, takes on an Alice blue glow, serene and hushed. I waken slowly counting my blessings and probing lapsed synapses for vestiges of recently forgotten dreams. My back hurts, my knees are stiff, my throat is sore.
Dark jolting morning brew, bitter consciousness, acrid aftertaste to smiling lips with the day’s first kiss. Flannel trundling, water splashing, brushing, flushing, sitting, standing, shaving myopic morning with my tablets of bodily control to ingest, an allotment of antidotes for an anemic, acerbic, non-anomalic anachronism fluctuating in pressures and shortcomings, wellspring of potential and delight. I also cannot shave my face without wearing eyeglasses, I have a perpetual ringing in my ears called tinnitus and a rumbling from my insides that result in occasional erupting gaseous miasmas. Aint nobody’s business but my own.
To the canines! To the felines! To the breaking of fasts and cooperative coexistence with my turn your turn return rerun get ’er done and get going to days after days after days of those events that will alter and illuminate me, and I am there. And I am impotent to control the uncontrollable; the vagaries and upsurges, swirlings and swimmings now cooperating now in opposition to eddies and currents, bobbing and weaving and dodging matter as it hits the cosmic fan of everyday life. Into the breach! To the walls! To the sea! To the lighthouse!
After all, I have my health don’t I? I moisturize, I groom I exercise, I drink plenty of water. I take calcium, blood pressure medication, vitamins and something to calm my prostate and control my bladder and cholesterol. I have fruit smoothies to start the day with flax seed and even a regimen of diatomaceous earth. There is no medication that counteracts decrepitude and age.
Terminal survival retribution without reprieve or parole; death to the defiant, no sympathy, no clemency, no mercy.
Does it get better than this? If I stop counting my blessings will I lose them? Will there be retribution where there is no blessing? What does my life count for if I cannot ask for, deservedly, divine positive intervention in times of want and need?
I wear the talisman of mortality, the mantle of age and infirmary unpacking itself as so much baggage that has been carried and labored under, without hope of reversal. And they say: “such is life.”: I'm fighting in Honduras; I'm a desperate man...