The Breakfast Table

Theater: The Last Haven Safe From Consumerism

Dear John,

As you probably know, Pittsburgh had its own version of Don King in Gus Greenlee, who ran the numbers in Pittsburgh, owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the old Negro Baseball League as well as the venerable Crawford Grill–one of the preeminent jazz clubs in the country–and who was otherwise a fine upstanding leader of the community despite the illegality of his business enterprise. I suspect such civic responsibility is repeated in black communities all over the country, and it may have something to do with their outsider status. I suspect the black corporate executive entrenched in mainstream America does not feel or exhibit any such leadership or responsibility.

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In dialogue I eventually cut from Two Trains Running, the off-stage character Begaboo–a hustler and gangster, the size of whose funeral rivaled that of Prophet Samuel–was a sterling example of social responsibility, providing free turkeys for the community at Thanksgiving and parties to keep kids off the streets on Halloween.

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For years I have said that the best writing is done in the sports pages. Phil Musik, who for a time worked in Pittsburgh, is my favorite. His use of metaphor, for example equating a Steeler football game with the military exploits of Genghis Khan, is near legendary and is as fine a writing as you will find anywhere.

I see the future! In the revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ma can insist on not singing until she had her Pepsi instead of her Coca-Cola, depending on who was willing to pay the most. The musicians can play the brand-name instruments of their sponsors, the record label can be Mercury, Decca, Oke’h, etc. It could even be called Bessie Smith’s Black Bottom if Columbia Records has enough money. And how did I miss the refrigerators in King Hedley II? They don’t have to be GE refrigerators (“The best refrigerator on the market,” as one character says). They could be Kenmore, Coldspot, Whirlpool. The guns don’t have to be Berettas and Glocks and Smith & Wessons, they could be, say, Colt .45s!

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These things you mentioned are, of course, very dangerous precedents. Not unlike naming theaters after corporations. We have, as you must know, a gorgeous new baseball park here in Seattle named after an insurance company. I don’t know why we have to be assaulted by signs ringing the outfield, the dugouts, etc., that say Starbucks or Seattle’s Best or Home Depot. I don’t know where it ends. The television networks are already planning to sell their logo space, which they superimpose over the picture, to commercial sponsors. Theater, for the time being, is one place where human life isn’t reduced to the common denominator of being a consumer. I suspect for all the Fay Weldons that the true artist is not for sale. I don’t think we are going to end up with the Picassos of the future painting Absolute Vodka bottles. There will always be artistic expressions of ideas that are above reproach.

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About Aunt Ester: As it is now I have her and Citizen Barlow sitting in her living room taking a trip on a paper boat she has made out of her bill of sale as a slave. They are on a slave ship and are going to visit the City of Bones, “a half-mile by a half-mile” in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (the largest unmarked graveyard in the world). The boat is rocking wildly, and a storm is approaching. Will Citizen Barlow survive the voyage? What will he discover in the City of Bones? I don’t know, but it promises to be an altogether exciting and perilous adventure to find out.

Finally, I leave you with this. Does the rise in the cost of malpractice as reported by the New York Times today mean that doctors are less skillful today than they used to be, or is it just another example of greed?

More to come. As ever,
August

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