Friday, September 30, 2011

An Honest Look at the Aftermath of a Tragedy: Review of "Haiti After the Earthquake" by Dr. Paul Farmer

Dr. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health and its sister Haitian organization Zanmi Sante, have transformed health care delivery in rural Haiti. When the earthquake shook Haiti to its very foundations in January, 2010, Farmer and his colleagues were jolted out of the "comfort zone" that they had established in and around rural Cange, and were confronted with the need to respond to the overwhelming acute medical needs that the earthquake had created in urban Port-au-Prince. This book represents Dr. Farmer's reflections one year after the earth-shaking event. His thoughts are supplemented beautifully by colleagues who were impacted in their own way by the ramifications of the earthquake.

Farmer speaks authoritatively from a variety of perspective - as head of a successful NGO, as the Deputy to Bill Clinton in the UN's Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti, as a expert in public health and epidemiology. The book sheds light on many of the decisions and actions that were taken in the hours and days after the earthquake, and the ongoing struggle to respond to what Farmer call an "acute upon chronic crisis" in helping Haiti move from rescue and recover to "building back better." For those of us who love Haiti and its people, this is a "must read" book, for it chronicles with great detail the ways in which the Haitian government, the U.S. government, the international community and NGO's interact with each other. The author has strong opinions about how things should work going forward, so the book is both descriptive and prescriptive. One would expect nothing less from a physician than for him to sign his name to a prescription pad to help alleviate Haiti's suffering.

Like the history of Haiti itself, this memoir is a mixture of despair and hope. I recommend it highly for anyone who wants a glimpses behind the curtain of what is happening (and not yet happening) in re-building Haiti.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tim Wakefield's 200th Win Was Not the Best "Feel Good" Story at Fenway on Tuesday Night - The Real Hero in the House

In the wee hours of Monday morning, the Red Sox came limping home after a disastrous road trip to Toronto and Tampa. The pressures of the pennant race had freshly squeezed the juice and the life out of them at Tropicana Field, where they were swept by the Rays. As the Sox prepared for a make-or-break-the-season home stand, they were in serious need of a transfusion of energy or a transplant of heart.

The home stand opened at Fenway on Tuesday evening with Tim Wakefield taking the mound for his eighth attempt to reach a significant milestone - his 200th major league victory. Twice he gave up leads, but the Red Sox bats finally came to life and eventually led to an 18-6 shellacking of the Blue Jays and the long-awaited victory by the veteran pitcher. The crowd roared its appreciation and love for their hero, the venerable knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield.

While most of the eyes and camera lenses at Fenway Park were trained on the baseball hero as he made his curtain call in front of the Red Sox dugout, another significant milestone was quietly being celebrated in Section 21 behind home plate. A gracious lady from Chattanooga, Tennessee was pointing to the man seated next to her, and proclaiming, "Here is the real hero."

Here is the short version of this wonderful feel good story of God's grace.

This lady from Tennessee had been battling leukemia, and was losing the battle. Her doctors told her that a bone marrow transplant was her only hope. Family members and friends were tested, but none proved to be a suitable match or potential donor. The family and their church family continued to pray, and finally, a man living in the Boston area was found to be a close enough match. The bone marrow transplant procedure took place, and did the trick. The lady's cancer went into remission, and she returned to health and the vibrant life she was accustomed to living.

Her son plays minor league baseball for the Colorado Rockies, and he had the idea that his family could thank the donor by treating him to a game at Fenway Park. He contacted the Red Sox organization, and they made the event possible, providing prime seats behind home plate for the bone marrow donor, the recipient and her baseball-playing son.

I was privileged to be sitting in the same area, struck up a conversation with the son, and learned of the special occasion that was quietly playing itself out. His mother and the donor were meeting face-to-face for the first time to celebrate this miracle. It was clear in speaking to the son and the mother that their strong faith had also played a key role in her recovery, along with the life-giving marrow.

While 38,000 vociferous fans were celebrating the remarkable exploits of someone who throws knuckle balls better than almost anyone in major league history, a few of us were celebrating what had happened when life had thrown a curve ball to a family from Chattanooga.

It was a special moment.

If you click on the link on the title of this piece, it will take you to the Dana Farber website that explains the procedures for registering to become a bone marrow or stem cell donor. Why not take a few minutes now to click and set yourself up to be added to the roster of those who may be given an opportunity to pitch in and save a life.

God bless.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Re-post of New Logic Blog Piece on "Characteristics of Good R&D Leadership"

John Cass of New Logic recently interview me about "Characteristics of Good R&D Leaders."

His summary of our conversation was just posted on the New Logic Blog:

New Logic Blog



Monday, September 05, 2011

A Lifeline for Aspiring Writers - Mini-Review of "The Forest for the Trees" by Betsy Lerner

Betsy Lerner has recently updated and revised her acclaimed work that is subtitled: "An Editor's Advice to Writers." Lerner herself has worked as a poet, editor and literary agent, so she brings a 360 degree view to the task of advising aspiring writers.

This is not a "how to book," on writing, but rather a carefully written work full of pithy anecdotes about authors, editors, agents, publishers, publicists, booksellers and the rest of the pantheon of individual needed to put a well-written book into the hands of a reader.

The author lovingly and frankly shares with her readers the good, the bad and the ugly lessons she has learned first-hand and vicariously in several decades of inhabiting the publishing world. As someone who writes on a regular basis and who is intrepidly plodding along on writing a novel, I found her advice both practical and heartening. She does a wonderful job of describing the idiosyncrasies of writers of every stripe, identifying common obstacles - lifestyle-related and psychological - that can trip up an aspiring writer.

Her love for literature,for the written word and for the peculiar type of person who is compelled to write books comes across loud and clear. It feels that we writers have someone in our corner on an otherwise sometimes lonely and hostile planet.



Saturday, September 03, 2011

"War Horse" at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater - Puppetry Raised to an Ineffable Art Form

I recently had a chance to see the remarkable play, "War Horse," which was transported from London's West End to New York's Lincoln Center. I am going to continue quoting Ben Brantley, the New York Times critic whose words I borrowed in yesterday's review of "Porgy and Bess." He captures beautifully the essence of the sensation that is playing to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center.

"It takes a team of strong but sensitive puppeteers to bring Joey, a half-Thoroughbred who is sold into a World War I cavalry regiment, to life-size life. And it is how Joey is summoned into being, along with an assortment of other animals, that gives this production its ineffably theatrical magic. Steven Spielberg is working on a film version of “War Horse,” a 1982 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo. But nothing on screen could replicate the specific thrill of watching Joey take on substance and soul, out of disparate artificial parts, before our eyes.

This enchantment is the work of the designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, for the Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town. And the spell cast has been strong enough to turn “War Horse,” which originated at the National Theater in London, into a runaway West End hit. A show that might otherwise have registered as only an agreeable children’s entertainment has been drawing repeat grown-up customers, who happily soak their handkerchiefs with wholesome tears."

NY Times Review of "War Horse"

Steven Spielberg found this story, drawn from a children novel, so compelling that he is making it into a blockbuster film to be released in theaters this coming Christmas holiday season.

In my seat at the Beaumont Theater , I watched the puppets that represent the horses come to life. As the puppets began to breathe, suspension of disbelief occurred instantaneously, and for the rest of the evening, I thought of them and related to them emotionally as if they were real horses. Like Peter Shaffer's iconic play, "Equus," "War Horse" darkly explores the cruelty that we human beings are capable of perpetrating against these majestic beasts.

Tickets for "War Horse" are difficult to score, but it is worth the investment of time and money. I am sure the film will be memorable, but seeing the horse puppets come to life is well worth the price of admission.



Friday, September 02, 2011

A Refreshing New Production of "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess" at the A.R.T. - Audra McDonald Soars!

For the past few weeks, a firestorm of controversy has been whirling around the anticipated opening of the revisionist production of "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess" at the American Repertory Theater. A.R.T. Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, who also serves as Director for this production of "Porgy," granted an interview to the New York Times. Paulus and her co-collaborators, Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, along with 4-time Tony award winner, Audra McDonald, talked in depth about the creative process, and of "revising and excavating" Gershwins' iconic opera. That interview moved the controversy from the category of "tropical depression" on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale to that of a full-blown Category 4 Hurricane bearing down on the coast of South Carolina with landfall at Catfish Row in Charleston. Stephen Sondheim, venerable Broadway composer, huffed and puffed in a letter to the Times. The letter was in the form of a screed, excoriating Paulus et al. for their effrontery in presuming that they could improve upon the original version. Sondheim's high dudgeon act was offered without him having seen the piece. Sondheim, of all people, should understand the truth that "art isn't easy"! At least he could have given them time for "finishing the hat" before opining on the cut of the show's jib. The ensuing controversy ratcheted up the already feverish anticipation of the show, and so many journalists from around the country and the world asked for press credentials that the A.R.T. was forced to offer two Press Opening. I attended last night's second Press Opening.

So, having already been tried in the kangaroo court of public opinion and social media chats, the show finally presented its case this week to a jury of audience members and theater critics. The verdict was instantaneous: Not Guilty of the charges of Desecrating a Classic Work of Art. As soon as the curtain fell, a slowly-building wave of audience members rose to their feet like a tide being pulled to shore by the gravitational tug of the moon. By the time of the final curtain call, even the normally reserved critics were on their feet applauding what we had just witnessed.

What had we witnessed? Well, first of all, we had seen Bess fully realized as she must have been imagined by Dubose Heyward and the Gershwins when they created the tragic anti-heroine. Audra McDonald was simply transcendent. I cannot improve on the eloquence of Ben Brantley of the New York Times in describing Ms. McDonald's achievement in the role of Bess:

"Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years, fulfilling the best intentions of Ms. Paulus and Ms. Parks. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.

Though her emotion-packed soprano has rarely been more penetrating or (dare I add?) operatic, Ms. McDonald makes you forget whether she’s speaking or singing the words of the loose-living, terminally conflicted Bess, who improbably but persuasively falls in love with Porgy (a dignified but hamstrung Norm Lewis). You just know that you feel what she’s feeling at any given moment, and that it is often unbearably painful."

NY Times Review

Other cast members had their day in the sun. Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara opened the show with a stunning rendition of "Summertime." David Alan Grier of "In Living Color" fame was believable and entertaining as Sporting Life, avoiding the stereotypical buffoonery that the role has invited in the past. His renditions of "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon." were highlights. Phillip Boykin is appropriately menacing and vocally powerful as Crown, Bess's bete noire and enslaver. Norm Lewis plays a quietly dignified Porgy. The choice to have him hobble on a cane rather than being pulled by the traditional goat cart worked well. In the age of the Americans with Disabilities Act, audiences can relate to someone struggling to get around with a cane; a goat cart would not have worked in this production. Andrea Jones-Sojola as Strawberry Woman offers a voice in "Street Cries" that was ethereal, beginning off stage and then moving gracefully onto the set with her basket of fresh strawberries for sale.

The creative team must have had fun inserting a line that gives a "wink wink, nudge nudge" to Broadway cognoscenti. Natasha Yvette Williams plays Mariah, the "Earth mother" of the Catfish Row community. The same actress had also played the role of Sophia on Broadway in "The Color Purple." In that show, she sings a show-stopping number entitled "Hell No!" By writing a line of dialogue that includes "Hell, no!" the writers of this production of "Porgy and Bess" simultaneously offer a nod to the "The Color Purple" and also signal to the audience that this show is as much musical theater as it is opera.

I must mention the set, and in so doing, humbly disagree with some of the critics. I applaud the choice to use an abstract minimalist depiction of Catfish Row. By refusing to recreate the realistic Gullah ghetto of previous productions, the director has uprooted the show from a specific place and broadened the application so that it tells the stories of many oppressed and struggling African-American communities. The action appears to take place within the bleached and rotting hulk of what could have been a slave ship - run aground on the shores of South Carolina. The implicit message is that all of these struggles- poverty, hopelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, denigration of women, con men and their games- is part of the detritus of the system of chattel slavery run aground in the days of Reconstruction. the Great Depression and beyond.

The ship's hull features a prominent gash that runs at an oblique angle. The angle of that gash exactly matches the angle of a scar that runs along Bess's left cheek. That scar is her back story, silently bearing witness to her years of abuse at the hands of men like Crow. Whether the matching of the angle of her scar with that of the ship's gash was an intentional artistic choice or not, the juxtaposition of the two blemishes ties Bess's personal pilgrimage to the larger journey of all the women of her ilk.

Many yearss ago, I sat through a four hour production of "Porgy and Bess." I think it was the Trevor Nunn production. I felt then that I should like it because of my love for Gershwins' music and my love for theater. But the pace of the show dragged and I never really felt connected to the characters who were more opera singers than true actors. I was unmoved. Last night, I saw and heard real people singing and dancing real songs about their real lives - and I was deeply moved. What a difference.

The show will be running in Cambridge through October, and then will move to Broadway in December or January. I hope you will have a chance to see it and make your own judgment.

A.R.T. Website