Tuesday 15 January 2019

From Paradise Square to Berkeley 155 years later

Have you ever looked up at a Broadway stage and wondered just how a riveting performer got there? I can assure you it did not happen without hard work and fierce determination.

Many have special gifts, and they’re all talented, but the sheer effort that goes into getting cast in a top-of-the-line musical is extraordinary. 

Cyndi Lauper once put it to me in her inimitable manner, “Anyone can give 100%; it’s what do you got at 120 or 125 that counts?”

Paradise Square is now well into its sold out run at Berkeley Rep and has already been extended until Feb. 24th. Some of you will remember the project began as Hard Times at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, directed by Kira Simring back in 2012.  

There’s a tremendous buzz about this musical that deals with the amalgamation of “Famine” Irish and African-Americans in New York City’s Five Points in 1863.

The wonderful 32-member cast has brought “the most notorious slum in America” roaring back to gritty life on the huge stage of the beautiful Roda Theatre in downtown Berkeley, CA.

So herewith – an insight into three young performers who hail from quintessentially Irish-American locations – Pearl River, NY; South Philadelphia, PA; and Dublin, OH.

I remember the day Bridget Riley auditioned for choreographer, Bill T. Jones.  She was so photogenically Irish - long red hair, pale skin, and sparkling blue eyes. Then again she was born and bred in Pearl River.

Though she seemed almost waif-like, you could sense her determination. More importantly she possessed an odd timeless quality and I instinctively knew she would embody the spirit of the many young women who escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger, attended Five Points dance halls, cast aside convention, and married African-American men.

And can she dance! She began ballet at 5, switched to Deirdre Guilfoyle’s School of Irish Dance in West Nyack at 12, before adding Jazz & Tap at 14.  But from the moment her mother took her to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, the six-year old girl knew where she was headed.  
Ambitious and organized, Bridie has a way with people and was chosen as one of two dance captains for Paradise Square’s run at Berkeley Rep.

Sidney DuPont is a solid 2% Irish. He learned that through Ancestry.com. He attended CAPA (Creative Performing Arts High School) in South Philly, a safe haven where he could shape his craft; he began performing professionally at sixteen.

It was while marching/performing in the St. Patrick Day Parade that he was first introduced to Irish step dancing which he finds mesmerizing, and calls a fusion of tap and ballet.

He plays William Henry Lane, AKA Master Juba, a runaway slave hiding out in The Five Points who enters into a partnership with Owen Duignan, recently arrived from famine-stricken Ireland.

The friendship of the two young men is severely tested when Owen’s name is called in the Civil War Draft while Will Henry, as an African-American, is prohibited from joining “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”

Sidney is a triple threat, a dancer who can channel the legendary Master Juba, a singer not unlike Curtis Mayfield, and a skilled actor.

Anyone who’s been to their big annual festival knows just how Irish Dublin OH is. You could say the same for A.J. Shively who plays Owen Duignan.

Although he’s an amazing mover it’s been an experience to watch him learn Irish step dancing from the ground up. 

He did have Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman from Hammerstep for coaches. But six months later he’s matching steps with them nightly as he goes mano-a-mano against Master Juba in a dance battle for his life. 

But that’s the signature of all these 32 performers – if there’s a skill you need to master in a hurry, then bring it on! A gig’s a gig and it’s all a step forward to a hallowed goal – originating a role on the Broadway stage.

Did I mention that A.J. has a voice to die for and that he’s fallen in love with Sean-Nós singing through merging his psyche nightly with Owen Duignan, the Gorta Mór refugee.

Three major talents from three bedrock Irish-American areas, and every night they give 125 % in a theatrical séance that summonses up the spirits of the Irish and African-Americans who for a brief moment rewrote American history.

 "Paradise Square" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA Jan.10-Feb.17 Tickets and information www.berkeleyrep.org

Saturday 5 January 2019

Christmas in Wexford

It’s been thirty years now since I’ve spent Christmas in Wexford. But as many of you can testify the memories of an Irish Christmas stay strong.

Of course, your relationship to “home” changes when your mother, father, and the old house are gone, but once you come to terms with those losses there’s still a whole vista of nostalgia to reacquaint yourself with and treasure.

Back in my youth Ireland had certain universal traditions: a delirious Christmas Eve followed by midnight mass or service, and a dead certainty that from Christmas morning on until New Year’s Day one could relax and celebrate with family and friends. 

And yet, each town and county had its own traditions. In Wexford the main one was the sheer joy of welcoming home emigrants.

Like many other areas of Ireland, Wexford was scarred by emigration. Because of the proximity of the UK and the low cost of travel, there was often a casual nature to many an exit.

You could go out for a drink on a Saturday afternoon with some of the lads home from London, and find yourself still in their company on the Rosslare ferry to Fishguard later that night.

By the same token you had to be very down on your luck not to make it home to Wexford from London, Dagenham, or Birmingham for “the Christmas.”

The boat train that arrived twice a day would be jam packed from Dec. 20th on, and the old town would echo with the footsteps of returning emigrants as they strode up and down the Main Street making sure that nothing had changed in their absence.

Families would return too – local men and women accompanied by their English wives and husbands, the children with hilarious cockney & scouse accents, sounding like pintsized Jaggers and Lennons.

Christmas lights would stretch from lampposts across the narrow streets and Woolworths, our one department store, would be chockablock with flirting teenagers, and anxious grown-ups seeking bargains for Christmas presents.

Few people had much money back then and the rich took care not to flaunt it, for it would have been considered the height of bad taste to make even the lowest feel less valued.

Was that a Christian ethic or an awareness that every Irish family had at one time experienced either repression or famine – and there could well be another come-uppance lurking just around the corner?

Whatever, Christmas was a time of communal joy, and the pubs reverberated with good fellowship as everyone – both emigrant and stay-at-homer - vied with each other to buy their round.

Faces would be flushed from the heat, overcrowding, and the sheer delight of seeing an old classmate - resplendent in the latest London fashions - flash a twenty-pound note at a dazzled barman.

And while the owner was shouting, “Ah lads, come on now, drink up, or the guards will take me license,” many would already be winding their wobbly way up to the Friary or one of the diocesan churches for midnight mass.

Others would arrive beyond fashionably late, and the wiser priests would stall their entry so as not to suffer the inevitable tumbling into pews or the loudly whispered greetings among the hard chaws back by the holy water font.

Nor was it unusual for the flutered devout to doze off into a fit of snoring until rudely awoken by a comrade’s elbow in the ribs. For attendance at midnight mass meant that you could forego the bleary downtown excursion for last mass the following morning.

But there was something else about this late night religious tradition – the pure joy of knowing you were home and taking part in a communal celebration about who you were and where you came from.

A very happy Christmas to the Irish Echo community and special best wishes to those undocumented who will once again not make it home for fear they will not be allowed back in the US.

I remember the feeling well in my own undocumented days, and the hope that something would change for the better the following year. My heart goes out to you.  Hang in there, perhaps in 2019.

Anthony Bourdain

Like many I was saddened by the death of Anthony Bourdain. He was the real deal in a medium full of botoxed puppets who spin their seven-minute slots of scripted talking points in between interminable ads.

Right from the start I felt I knew him from somewhere, but such things happen for as Joan Rivers once wisely proclaimed, “After 50 everything rings a bell.”

On reading his obituary I thought I’d found the answer: he had been chef at Les Halles, one of my favorite restaurants, mere crawling distance from Rocky Sullivan’s and Paddy Reilly’s. 

And so I figured he was one of those gregarious lords of the kitchen who descend on your table soliciting compliments, usually while your mouth is full.

But when I watched his final CNN show devoted to the Lower East Side the penny dropped.

It was nothing spectacular - he was just another face in the crowded mad scene of the early ‘80’s down around Avenues A and B. 

I never spoke to him but I saw him often enough, usually standing in the center of a crowd, his charismatic face lit up with laughter and booze, the center of attention in a scene of many stars. 

But there was another recurring memory of him – solitary and hunched over his drink, often picking at a small plate of food.

Did you ever notice that some people habitually gravitate to the same part of whatever bar they find themselves – Anthony’s was down near the service station where he could banter with the bartender and waitresses when the mood hit him.

When he talked about his heroin use in that last show, pieces of his puzzle fell into place. Many hard drug users are dual characters, extroverts dominating the conversation, but more often than not loners wearing almost visible “don’t mess with me” psychic armor to keep the world at bay.

His Lower East Side CNN show rocked me back on my heels. I had blacked out so much of the scene, partly because I spun off into a different universe when Black 47 took off; I moved away from Avenue B and a world I’d long been a part of.

Bourdain kept posing the same question to Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie and Lydia Lunch among others, “Was the scene on the Lower East Side really that special?”

In typical LES cool, each of the interviewees made a point of stating that “it was just a phase, life goes on, I’m still creative,” with the unspoken plea, “you should see what I’m doing now!”

And they’re right. No matter what you’ve achieved in the creative world, you’re only as good as your new song, novel, painting or film. 

Perhaps, the most grounded of his interviewees, the eternally creative John Lurie put it best. “I’m just glad I survived the excesses of the times and am still working.”

But there was something beyond special about the Lower East Side in those years - just think of Hilly Crystal’s CBGB’s! What a place – what a guy, so understated and matter of fact – but would there have been an international Punk scene without him?

Hilly’s own musical taste ran to Country and Bluegrass, and yet his club spawned a musical movement that rocked the world and changed the aesthetic of popular music. 

I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the amazing Television emerge from CB’s miasma of mediocrity, for Hilly gave everyone and his mother a shot – including me!

But Lower East Side music was also the background track to a wonderful DIY kaleidoscope of poets, painters, choreographers, novelists, dreamers & cultural revolutionaries that you collided with in the bars, clubs, galleries and parties that seemed to go round the clock.

Craziness too – I once got a lovely kiss from Debbie Harry who upon hearing my accent mistook me for a Boomtown Rat.  Ah well, mistaken identity it may have been but she was our Marilyn and I still treasure the moment.

Yeah, Mr. Bourdain, your suspicions were right – those years in Alphabet City were amazing. They didn’t last. Nothing does. But thanks for the CNN memories and that tunnel back to a spiky past when everything seemed possible.