Death of a Poet Lauriate or, When it rains, it pours

“Who would you be if reality were no obstacle?”

— Diane di Prima, Queen of the Beats and eternal Poet Laureate of San Francisco, dead Sunday at the age of 86

“Remember you can have what you ask for
Ask for everything.”

— Diane di Prima

Day of the dead, quand meme

What hapens when the Dia de los meurtas falls during a year like this? At Kristin Meller and Raúl Velasco’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, high atop Belleville at 49-bis rue des Cascades, on continue. No vernissage (and none of Raúl’s beans, the best in France) this year, and if the exhibition is open from 3 to 8 p.m. October 31 through November 8, visitors are encouraged to pay their respects to the hand-crafted calaveras outside rush hours, masked. Offering prepared by Velasco and Oaxaca’s own Anäi del Sol Javier Salinas. In addition to Meller (who created the poster), this year’s calaveras constructed by Aline Ternon, Anne-Claire Gras, Aude Gourichon, Christophe Seureau, Fanny Gautreau, Florence Bonhivers, Julio Cesar Martinez Rojas, Kristin Meller, Laurence Dujat, Léa Rivera Hadjes, Léa Robin Furiosa, Magali Brien, Marie-Liesse Sztuka, Marina Savani, Michel Lasserre, Michel Ouaniche, Niki Striees, Patrizia Horvath, Raúl Villullas, Roxane Moine, Sophie Dussidour, and Véronique Murail.

French schoolteacher decapitated for performing job New York Times abdicated

BPaul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

This one goes out to Gertrude Mays, Katharine Swan, John Franklin, Chuck Stewart, John Bissett, Ralph Saske, Anne-Lou Klein, Robert Klang, John Tourlos, Ms. Kalil, Phil Abrams, Dick Holt, Connie Flannery, Ernie Baumgarten, Bob Beckstrum, Marlyeen Stetner, Mr. Cash, Ruth Asawa, Louise Stovall, Kathleen Feinblum, and Lewis Campbell.

On Friday in a small French town not far from Paris, a middle-school teacher was decapitated for performing a job the New York Times, which likes to vaunt its product as journalism at its best, has abdicated: Sharing a cartoon with his public.

The (two) cartoons in question here in France came from the famous series of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed which two thugs who couldn’t care less about God, faith, Islam, and real Muslims used as the pretense for brutally mowing down nine journalists from the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had published them, two police officers, and a janitor on January 7, 2015, a massacre and attack on freedom of speech which inspired the French minister of education at the time to re-enforce instruction in lay values, including freedom of expression and the right to blasphemy, in courses on morals and civics, also the context for Professor Samuel Paty’s sharing the cartoons with his students the week prior which served as pretext for his assassination, discovered Friday afternoon, by an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant from Russia subsequently killed by police while resisting arrest.

You’ll find more salient details on the crime and consequences elsewhere, including no doubt from the New York Times. What the Times won’t tell you — the news not fit to print because of the negative light it casts on its own conduct — is how Paty’s act of what unfortunately is becoming quotidian bravery in some parts of France today contrasts with the paper’s own cowardice in similar circumstances, but where the newspaper’s editors were much more insulated.

Some two years ago, an editor of the Times’s online edition re-posted a cartoon featuring Donald Trump leading Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu around on a leash. Never mind that to some people (even Jewish people like me; the cartoon also included a Star of David) the cartoon was right on point. Enough people were offended that the Times didn’t just pull the cartoon — which still would have been cowardly but not a surprise, given the paper’s moral and cultural conservatism; the Grey Lady may be willing to follow the envelope, but unlikely to push it — but announced that it would no longer be publishing any cartoons in its online editions, in other words BANNING THEM, thus abandoning one of the newspaper trade’s most noble heritages, a legitimate form of editorial expression and rabble-rousing for more than 200 years. (Not that the Times should be looked upon as a paragon of moral journalism; its many journalistic faults in recent years include enabling the Bush war on Iraq by promoting as fact Dick Cheney’s false claims, a fault not without rapport to the terrorism that has struck France in recent years, given its origins in Iraqi terrorism cells that exploded after the American-led invasion.)

By contrast, while it might be argued that history and geography professor Samuel Paty was simply doing his job in sharing the editorial art as part of a lesson on freedom of expression and religion, or the right of blasphemy, mandated by the State, this would be to ignore the very real constraints on school-teachers in addressing this subject in France over the past six years. The 18-year-old Chechen Russian immigrant who lopped Professor Paty’s head’s off — as his fellow terrorists did that of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl — didn’t do it on a whim. He was apparently provoked by virulent commentary on the social networks from parents (including one, it turns out, whose child wasn’t even in the professor’s class) and, particularly, a radical Islamic indoctrinator (among the detained, as is as a parent) who, among other things, called him a ‘thug.’ This would also be to ignore that in this specific case, despite that nothing required him to do so, Professor Paty still showed consideration for the potential sensibilities of some of his students, reportedly giving them a head’s up the day before he shared the cartoons and telling them it was okay if they wanted to miss that class, step out of the room, or simply close their eyes. This is called franchise, another lesson students need to learn. (While I’m NOT comparing the situations, values, or principles involved, this gesture by the professor towards his students — a gesture ultimately of acceptance of them without compromising his own and the national values, of compromise between not abdicating his pedagogic responsibility and recognizing the deformed view of those values that some of his students’ parents must be inculcating in them, what he was up against — reminded me of how in elementary school in the 1960s my brother and I used to mouth the words ‘with liberty and justice for all’ while reciting the daily Pledge of Allegiance.)

In other words, where the editors of the New York Times, who have a helluva lot more levels of protection between them and their public than a school-teacher, cast shame on their — on my — metier in depriving their readers of a storied and vibrant form of editorial polemic, this school-teacher not only performed his duties, but, it might be said, did so in a way geared towards not alienating those of his young charges who, no matter how contrary to the values of the Republic, might be upset by the cartoons because of what their parents had been teaching them, even though nothing required him to do so.

While I myself have had many journalistic mentors, the mentors who have taught me the most, including values that have served me in my outlook as a citizen as well as my ‘optique’ as a journalist, have been teachers.

In this respect, Samuel Paty reminds me of a whole lot of one of my middle-school teachers, Gertrude Mays.

In eighth grade, Gertrude — this was a public San Francisco hippy school, so we were encouraged to call our teachers by their first names — took us on a field trip to the Marin County Courthouse to observe the trial of the San Quentin Six, Black men accused of murder and other crimes while participating in the prison escape attempt in which “Soledad Brother” George Jackson was killed. (Gertrude was secretary of the San Quentin Six Defense Committee.) What I retain most are the metal detectors we had to pass through, defendant Willie Spain’s dreadlocks, and that all the accused shuffled into court shackled with arm and leg chains. (An appeals court would later throw out one verdict precisely for this reason.) Later in the year Gertrude took us to spend a week with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.

Because of the tools that both Gertrude and my parents gave me, the following year, attending a regular junior high school, I was able to contest certain versions of history inscribed in a dated history textbook being taught to us by a more conservative teacher, Mr. Littlejohn.

If Professor Paty’s courageous conduct (he could have just as easily chosen Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs de mal,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” or any number of cartoons mocking any other religion to illustrate the lesson, but opted instead for a fresher example, ripped from the headlines, which would be more relevant to his students; the trial of those accused of assisting the killers of Charlie and the Kosher super-market is now in progress) is startling compared with the New York Times’s abdication — its lachery — in the same domain, properly that of journalism, in the French case there’s also another abdication, that of some of the parents, specifically those who vented their ire on the social networks as opposed to simply seeing their children’s heroic teacher as a human being dedicated to their education, under trying conditions in normal times let alone Covid times (he like his students are all required to wear masks) and trying to understand.

A new French Exception: Should BoBos have more privileges than barflies?

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

If I’ve tried to stay out of Monday-morning quarter-backing French government decisions in what president Emmanuel Macron accurately described (in announcing a two-month confinement in March) as a ‘war’ against Covid, it’s because unlike Macron and his ministers, it’s not on my shoulders to balance the often seemingly competing needs of health and economy, not to mention gage how far citizens are capable of going in making social sacrifices for the preservation of both. But as a theater person and critic for nearly 45 years, and simply as someone who lives here, has to bear Covid consequences like his neighbors, and has more contact with normal people than most of those who make up the effete and elite Parisian theater world, I think I have some standing to comment on the outrageously selfish response of some in that theater community to the president’s imposition of a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew starting at midnight tonight.

Mr. Macron had barely had time Wednesday night to declare this moment an occasion for national solidarity than the cry-babies of the Paris culturati — abetted by a mayor who has constantly fought for special, often unwise exceptions to the federal government’s modest measures or counsels to contain the virus and consistently refused to cancel large public events; 30,000 people tested positive nationawide in the last 24 hours nationwide, and 50 percent of intensive care hospital beds in Paris are filled with Covid patients — started squawking and demanding an exception. Specifically, the mayor has requested that theater tickets count as ‘attestations,’ the famous document which permits people (health and other night workers, for instance) to be out after nine — in other words, to break curfew. Meanwhile, others have enlisted the cultural minister to support the idea that shows could end at 9 p.m., the ticket again proof that a person was out after the curfew because of a concert.

In other words, if you’re busted (and obliged to pay a fine of 130 Euros, or 1,500 on the second offence) for being outside at 9h01 because you missed a Metro, lingered too long over your cheese plate or a final cigarette, were reluctant to end a stimulating conversation, had to work late, your bicycle broke down, or you lost track of time during a flirt, you’re fucked. If you’re a working schmo who has only enough to offer himself a beer at the end of a long working day, or a student who’s been confined in a 20 square meter closet habitation all day taking class on a telephone screen and just wants to unwind with friends, no respite for you. (Or, worse, as some students are proposing: Slumber party! How do you spell super-spreader?)

If you can prove to the police officer who stops you on the Boule St.-Mich at 9h05 that you’re coming from Boris Charmatz’s latest conceptual dance discourse, you’re all right; but if you were sipping soup at Boris’s Borscht Bowl on the Ile St. Louis and had the misfortune to demand and take time for a second serving, you’re out of luck, you schmuck.

How do you spell class privilege?

The counter-argument to the one I just laid out is that theaters, and even more movie theaters, have particularly suffered during this period, with the former at 50 percent attendance, and that in spaced-out seating. And that they’ve generally been more responsible than bars and particularly restaurants seem to have been in imposing physical distancing and mask-wearing measures on their own initiative. (Although the French theater I heard of which has reduced its audience capacity from 1200 to 700 seems to be making a lot less of a sacrifice than the Midwestern dance company I know which is ready to reduce its 300-capacity theater to a maximum public of 30 to protect its dancers and its public.)

But a) everyone has been hard-hit and b) if the goal of the curfew is to curtail extra-familial gatherings in public or private settings, an exception for any milieu would seem to be not clear on the concept.

A possible compromise to aid the theaters might be to ask businesses themselves to make a little sacrifice and let their employees off an hour or so earlier, which would allow theaters to adjust openings accordingly, but as restaurants might possibly also seek to follow suite, this too might defeat the purpose.

The worse dance I ever saw — meanwhile, in Seine-St.-Denis outside Paris, as Covid numbers soar, the band plays on

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Author’s Note: While some performances have seemed better in retrospect than they were at the time, this monstrosity is not one of those cases, remaining, 16 years after I saw it, the most excruciating experience I’ve ever had in a theater, as well as a profound indictment of the curating ethos of the programmer, Anita Mathieu. But there are more grave, ethical considerations; despite that France is now in full second wave of the Covid pandemic — averaging 20,000 new cases per day over the past week — on Tuesday the Rencontres Choregraphiques allegedly Internationale festival launched its 2020 edition, scheduled to run through December 12… in mostly closed spaces. Let’s hope the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew announced last night by French president Emmanuel Macron for nine metropoles, including the Ile de France, on maximum Covid alert with looming hospital bed shortages, will put the kibosh on that. I don’t advocate cancellation for all dance performances and companies. In particular, I feel that ballet, and certain modern companies — Pilobolus and Streb, for example — can play fundamental roles in these times as reminders that beauty is in our past and can be just around the corner of our future. (In the ballet world, Tulsa Ballet in particular has spared no expense in taking intricate, elaborate measures — with expert epidemological expertise — to protect performers and audience as best as possible.) But the majority of what I’ve seen at this particularly festival has amounted to corporeal conceptual masturbation, and I just don’t see the justification for exposing an audience to such abuse at any time, let alone when the consequences can be mortal. As the late great Randy Shilts might put it: And the band plays on. First published by the Dance Insider on May 6, 2004 and re-touched today.

BOBIGNY (Seine-St.-Denis), France — Just before the close of the first act of Wanda Golonka’s three-hour walk-a-thon, which opened the Rencontres Choregraphiques at MC93 last night, William Forsythe, not-at-all disguised in a face-covering long blonde wig, orange sweater, green slacks, and boots, rages about a cage under the seating of the grand auditorium. It’s a frighteningly apt metaphor for what is happening to much dance here, as supposed ‘choreographers’ abandon research into the body (in French, corps) for dilettantes’ diversions into other art forms… in which they often have neither training nor competence. Thus we get theatrical, filmic, or other-media excursions into territory the experts in these fields have already covered long ago, and more fluently, while dance rages in a basement cage, forgotten by those charged with advancing it. So when Anita Mathieu chooses to open her Rencontres Choregraphiques festival with a piece in which only three of the nine segments feature something that could feasibly be called ‘dance,’ I have to ask “Ou ca?” Or, “Where?” Where exactly was the promised choreography in this spectacle? And where’s a curtain-stopping Intermittents’ (freelance performers) strike when you need it?

Except for Forsythe’s explosive solo — the program credits Golonka for the choreography, but the precise energy containment and release here, as well as the signature stop-and-start joint moves, particularly in the arms and behind the shoulders, plus the lack of developed choreography seen elsewhere in the program, suggest Forsythe should get much of the credit for what he dances here — except for this expressive solo and a compactly rendered and choreographed opening scene performed by Hilke Altefrohne scaling and re-scaling a mountain made of a canvas draped over the middle audience seating, except for these interludes, I feel like I already wasted three hours of my life on Golonka’s “An Antigone,” her incoherent take on a translation of a translation of the Sophocles tragedy. (Or, as the futuristically yellow-clad Jennifer Minetti droned at one point during an excruciatingly long segment delivered entirely while sitting at a table in the backstage scenery shop, “Perte de temps” — Loss of time.) So I’m hesitant to squander any more minutes in the quixotic quest to correct those who really don’t want to be corrected. But for the benefit of society — principally those who would come to see these Rencontres Choregraphique under the mistaken belief they’ll actually encounter choreography, and those who would and have funded this festival in the ‘dance’ category — I feel one must address what looks like a sinister development that has lately infiltrated dance, at least here in Europe. (Golonka is German.)

“An Antigone” — I really cringe at invoking that noble name in so ignoble an enterprise as is being countenanced, condoned, and commissioned by Mathieu here — ends in a frighteningly fascistic fashion. After simply lying on his back on a short rectangular platform and screaming for about 20 minutes (prompting my companion to lift the pillow on which she was sitting — for this segment, our roving audience was seated on the lip of the stage — to catch my attention by miming smothering him), Olivier Kraushaar then gets up and proceeds to ‘invite,’ two by two, the spectators onto the stage, where he seats them in their chairs. Incredibly, soberingly, alarmingly, no one refused. My companion and I exited before he could attempt to compromise us, but after departing, I realized that compromise was precisely Golonka’s agenda here — worse, culpability. By (sweetly) inviting the audience onto the stage after the artistic (and perhaps politically, fascistically motivated) horror they had witnessed over the preceding three hours, she was in effect seeking to implicate us — just as the killer, having accomplished his deed while a crowd sat passively by, then induces each of the witnesses to throw a stone at the victim. But I say: NO, NO, NO.

In these, hope: Belleville Studios Re-open

PARIS — On the top of our list of the regrettably Covid-cancelled events last May was our absolute favorite — and necessary — rite of Spring, the Open Studios of the Artists of Belleville. Even if Spring is theoretically always right around the corner, we didn’t think we could wait until next year to tour the workshops (and often creatively designed workshop-homes) of the artists who make up the fiber of the winding streets of Belleville and Menilmontant, fending off with the sole arm of their creativity the onslaught of BoBos (Bourgeoisie Bohemians; yuppies to you, bub) that are little by little making our favorite ‘hood in Paris — our QG, quoi — unaffordable for artists and, as vitally, driving out the economically poorest from the ethnic groups whose cultural richness has long made Belleville Europe’s answer to San Francisco’s Mission District. But if the BoBos may be fleeing — a casual searcher on the Facebook group “Se Loger Village Jourdain” (find a home in the Village Jourdain, the area around the Jourdain Metro in upper Belleville) will find more home-sellers than rent offerers — the 135 artists that make up the Associated Artistes of Belleville are staying and have bravely decided to re-open their 85 ateliers to mount the 2020 event, “Anima,” this Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Bravely because with Covid numbers up — almost 13,000 new cases were registered nationwide yesterday (nearly 32,000 have died in France of the virus) — already ‘red-zoned’ Paris is likely to soon join Marseille as a ‘privilege’ “red-scarlet zone,” with 250 in 100,000 people tested showing positive (50 is considered by government health officials the normal threshold). So whether you’re chasing rainbows, fleeing shadows, looking for your anima or just a little of the creative courage only artists can provide, grab your mask and go East, young man or woman, to Belleville, ma belle ville. Above — and just inheritors of that amoureux of Red Balloons Pascal — the next generation at their task in the Fresque Collective’s atelier. In these, hope.

Kathleen Azevedo Feinblum: Requiem for a Mentor

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-9.png

From the Arts Voyager Archives: Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), printed by Clifford Smith. “Nude,” 1965. Lithograph. ©1965 Ruth Asawa. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.1965.210.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

For Lewis, with love and profound appreciation.

“The world no longer exists so you must go deep inside yourself to retain your sanity.”
— Jerome Charyn (a time-delayed mentor), France Culture radio, September 28, 2020

If most of us are aware of who our grand, larger than life mentors — in life, in work, in art — have been, we sometimes are less aware, less appreciative with the distance of time and the contraction of memory, of those who didn’t make a big deal of it, who didn’t splash their influence all over us but subtly injected it into our veins, who didn’t seem to be consciously instilling lessons in us or sketching models for us, but whose lessons insinuated and kneaded their way gently, unobtrusively into who we were and who we would become. It wasn’t until I learned recently that she had severe pancreatic cancer and reflected on the various points where she had played key roles in my artistic, creative, and personal (coming of age as an adult) development that I realized that my friend and teacher Kathleen Azevedo Feinblum, who died Saturday afternoon in the San Francisco home she has shared for decades with Lewis Campbell, one of my marquee mentors, was one of these.

Lewis founded the city-wide public school San Francisco Center for Theatre Training — for all intents and purposes the pilot program for what is now known as the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts — in the fall of 1976. (Ruth, the pioneering California painter and sculptor, was another mentor; CTT was launched at the Noe Valley home she shared with Al Lanier.) Think “Fame,” version San Francisco; while most of the kids at other high schools were performing the same 20-year-old musicals and 50-year old stock comedies, we were performing, and learning, “The Trojan Women,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “John Brown’s Body,” Bertolt Brecht (“I found my theater on the street”; I got to stage-manage and understudy) and Clifford Odets (the Labor drama “Waiting for Lefty” that terminated with all of us in our serious suits crying “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!), and touring public elementary schools with a Japanese Noh drama for which we made our own Plaster of Paris masks. Kathleen, a former student of Lewis’s at the CTT predecessor program, Mission High School’s Multi-Ethnic Theater, joined us soon afterwards, as resident playwright, director, costumer, occasional singer, and musical theater teacher. She touched my lives in all of these arenas, usually — and this is key — giving me my first experience in a particular domaine and /or helping me navigate a thorny creative or moral passage or terrain, which often involved taking a chance on me and seeing things and aspects others didn’t in the budding (sorry) thespian I was… and even in my own creative writing work.

Kathleen penned what was one of my first adult roles, in the two-person, couple play, “The Cliff-Dwellers.” I also acted in a one-act work, “The Mattress,” that was part of an all-evening program Kathleen wrote, “Clowns Need Not Apply.”

One might say that 99-pound weaklings need not apply for the toughest of the two tough-guy roles in Israel Horovitz’s “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” but Kathleen not only cast me in the play, but against type (I generally got the ingenue or the nice guy), the hulking guy who (in my mind) actually looked the part — the name, Frank Torrano, says it all — playing the role of the softer of the tandem of bullies who end up stabbing an East Asian Indian who asks them for directions. (“Hey Frankie! The Indian wants the Bronx!”) I still feel the sting of the slap Frank delivered when his character finally revolts. Before shows, Frank and I would warm up by planting ourselves on the steps of the recently earthquake-proofed and refurbished Mission High School, fearlessly ignoring the mocking of the stoners across the street in Dolores Park, and, by way of getting into character, scream invectives at our fictive social counselor, “HEY PUSSY-FACE!” aiming at an imaginary high-rise beyond the hilly park. This play is also why I know that ‘frickin” is actually a watered-down version of ‘friggin’.’ (And if you have to ask what ‘friggin’ means, well, it’s none of your friggin’ business!)

Kathleen also took on the first play I wrote, “A Love Story, of Sorts,” which involves a shy teenaged boy who makes a series of personal confessions to a beautiful teenaged girl he meets in a hotel lobby, only to (spoiler alert) wake up at the end to find out it was all a dream. I wanted Adrienne Lee, a real-life hearth-throb, for the lead role; Kathleen cast Gina Ramos. I harrumphed and probably made a scene. But in the end, Gina brought out humor in the role that even the playwright hadn’t seen, and thus probably saved the play from being just a lonely outcast teenage boy’s chaste (and at times gross; there was the reference to stuffing batteries in his nose) dream. (Including the performance where, after the lights dimmed at the end so “Lisa” could disappear before ‘David’ ‘woke-up,’ Gina tripped over a chair and exclaimed “Fuck!” Which I never let her live down. “Hey Gina!: Fuck!”)

One might also say that Kathleen catered to a hyper-Jewish stage I went through after participating in a State Department sponsored national high-school delegation to Israel in the Spring of junior year. First, by casting me as one of Tevya’s daughters’ beaux in a musical theater workshop production of scenes from “Fiddler on a Roof,” which gave me my first real opportunity to sing — and confidence in singing in public. Then, and most memorably, by agreeing to sew a golden Star of David onto the butt of my costume when I felt guilty about performing in that summer’s production of “Godspell.” (The director rolled her eyes, as she did when I refused to adhere to her instructions to just lip-synch.)

About the same time as all this was happening, another student, David Abad (he played the lead in my play), and I used to sing (not lip-synch) “Me and My Shadow” while skipping home from late-night parties. In reflecting on her influence in this key stage of my creative artistic and creative development, I have realized that Kathleen has in a way been shadowing me all my life — and is still; wanting to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I dug into a caché of old CTT programs and found this note from Kathleen on the cover of the one for “Clowns Need Not Apply”:

“To Paul — To a fellow playwright who’s got some great plays somewhere in his head. Good Luck — Good Thinking — Good Work!”

Under which Lewis had added:

(I was all of 16 when she wrote this.)

I will try to adhere to that encouragement, Kathleen (and Lewis) and out those plays from my musty head so that they can breathe. And given that Kathleen went on to a lifetime of teaching English at the college level, it’s safe to say that I am not the only one of her pupils — in the grand sense of that term — who will continue applying her life and creative lessons to their lives and to the way they practice in the world. Because the best, most enduring mentors are the ones who keep on giving. Not just in life lessons that continue to be called into service but, in Kathleen’s case, in a very practical, life-saving fashion: When Covid broke out earlier this year, in France, where I live, the health crisis was accompanied by a mask crisis: A succession of health ministers had failed to ensure that the mask supply was up-to-date (it was not; many had expired). It was Kathleen who told me about the used tee-shirt masks that, in a pinch, one could fabricate oneself. 40 years after the famous Star of David Incident (which, CTT lore-wise, was right up there with Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat), Kathleen was once again assuring my notoriety, that those around me would remark my singularly rebel fashion of dressing for the occasion, with cries of “Qui etait celui-la, cet homme masqué?” — “Who was that masked man?” — resounding around the quartier. (The Stetson helped. And no, “Monster Boy” was not among the old glad-rags transformed into protective shields.) (See the graph after the next to decipher that reference.)

And Kathleen had — or made — time to mete out one more lesson, after she was already sick: Responding to a list of prospective books I’d like to translate for my new publishing house (and theater company; I thank Lewis for that addition), The Typewriter in the Attic, Kathleen asked, not needling but almost nonchalantly, “Are you interested in contemporary works?” Lesson received, Kathleen.

On the same program as “A Love Story, of Sorts,” Lewis also gave me my first real theater directing opportunity, of the Tennessee Williams one-act “This Property is Condemned,” which had generated the germ of a full-length movie starring Nathalie Wood and Robert Redford. (In junior high, at a city-wide festival in which all of two schools participated, I’d won the ‘best supporting actor’ award for my portrayal, opposite my junior high heart-throb Felicia French, of “Boy,” whose biggest line is “The BONE ORCHARD?!”) (I still haven’t figured out whether Felicia and Linda Mull’s repeatedly breaking out with “Monster Boy,” to the tune of “Soldier Boy,” whenever they saw me — they even got me a light blue tee-shirt with the name inscribed on it in black — was just their way of flirting with me.)

The justification for this long tangent is that (if memory serves) for the version I directed, which starred Stacey Jack (whom I’d known since we acted in a summer workshop production of “Mutiny in Space” when I was 10 and she 8 or 9) and Rowland Weinstein (a real trooper, who valiantly performed one evening with the flu and a 101 fever), we replaced the song in the script which the girl sings, explaining that it was her dead sister Alma (she of the bone orchard)’s favorite, with one whose signature line I’ll now sing (not lip-synch) for Kathleen, who at about 63 if my math is right, died way too young and way too soon:

Kathleen, you’re still the only star in my blue heaven.

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), printed by Jurgen Fischer. “Nasturtiums,” 1965. Lithograph. ©1965 Ruth Asawa. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 1965.214. Right: Ruth Asawa (b. 1926), printed by Ernest de Soto (b. 1923).

Greco Forever: Ne nous quittez pas, Juliette

Juliette Greco, par Jim Lubrano. Photograph copyright Jim Lubrano and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Eloise Alibi
Copyright 2016, 2020 Eloise Alibi
(English version, translated by Paul Ben-Itzak with the author, follows French original)

Juliette Greco, the Queen of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, died Tuesday in the Vars department of France. She was 93 years old, and forever young. Juliette Greco is survived by Saint-Germaine-des-Prés and by the multiple generations of composers to whose songs she gave her unique voice. This Flash Review of la Greco’s farewell Paris performance was first published by the Arts Voyager on March 2, 2016. The English version has been expanded.

PARIS — Le jour de ses 89 ans, Juliette Greco nous a donné une leçon d’élégance et d’audace. Sobre, humble et pleine de force. Avec émotion et sans aucune pause, elle a interprété ses plus grands titres en guise de gratitude envers son public venu de toute la France combler la salle du Théâtre de la ville – Sarah Bernhardt, dimanche le 7 fevrier.

Sur un fond noir, en robe noire, cheveux noirs, ses mains blanches, si expressives, ont précédé son entrée sur scène : une démarche fragile la mène au micro qu’elle ne quittera pas pendant une heure trente d’émotion, de musique et de poésie.

Seule, accompagnée de ses « deux camarades » dans sa robe de tragédienne, elle occupe tout le plateau dans des lumières généreuses et sobres. Le piano et l’accordéon — joué par, respectivement, Gerard Jouannest (egalement sa partenaire dans la vie et ex-accompagnateur de Jacques Brel) et le virtuose Jean-Louis Matinier, au service de l’interprète, se font oublier tant ils s’accordent avec osmose à l’ interprétation de la légendaire « Jolie môme. »

Le choix des chansons est d’autant surprenant qu’elle n’a chanté que des hommes ; et pas des moindres : les monuments de notre patrimoine musical : Brel (« Ces gens là ») , Ferré (« Avec le temps »), Gainsbourg (« La javanaise »), Guy Béart (« Il n’y a plus d’après ») , Rivière (« Un petit poisson, un petit oiseau »)…. On retient ici L’ « Amsterdam » de Brel — c’etait Jouannest et son ensemble qui ont accompagné Brel pour le mythic enregistrement a l’Olympia en ’64 — pari culotté qu’elle relève haut la main. C’est cette audace qui la tient vivante et que l’on vient chercher, c’est cette audace qui nous la rend éternelle.

La tête haute, droite, puissante, Juliette, figure d’insoumise, à l’image des poètes qu’elle incarne (Sartre lui avait ecrit une chanson) — depuis le moment où, ado et orpheline, elle s’est trouvée tout seule, relachée par les occupants sur le Boulevard Hoche, et, plus tard, apres la guerre, entourée de Vian, Vadim, Sartre et de Beauvoir, l’equipe du Tabou a Saint-Germain-des-Prés, et encore plus tard avec Miles Davis. Juliette, venue ici remercier son public et ses auteurs, ne nous dit pas Adieu, mais nous réveille et jongle avec le temps sur les airs de « Je n’ai pas vingt ans », « Les vieux » (co -ecrit par Brel et Jouannest), « J’arrive », «Il n’y a plus d’aprés, » etcetera.

Tout est juste avec Juliette. Pas de fioritures de mise en scène, pas d’explication, pas de percussion pour rythmer le spectacle qui se suffit à pulser de lui même en crescendo et soutenu.

Merci à vous Juliette Greco de continuer à nous élever et à nous transmettre la beauté des mots et de la vie. Ce souffle que vous nous transmettez n’a pas d’âge, il est intemporel et nécessaire. Ne nous quittez pas Juliette, nous aussi nous vous aimons.

Eloïse Alibi est une comédienne, musicienne et chanteuse. Pratiquant le saxophone et le piano depuis l’enfance, elle rencontre trés tôt l’improvisation et le monde de la scène. Elle commence ses créations par un spectacle de poésie dédié à Jean Sénac, qui est le début d’un long parcours poétique et grâce à qui elle jouera des textes des Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwich, Allen Ginsberg ou Walt Whitman. Avec la cie Le p’tit Atelier, elle créé un cabaret de chansons poétiques (Le cabaret du pire), avec qui elle répond à des commandes de la Maison de la poésie de Montpellier, donne des ateliers de sensibilisation à la poésie à des classes de collèges et pour des maisons de retraite. En Mai 2015, elle a créé un spectacle hommage aux chansons de Nino Ferrer.

Juliette Greco, by Richard Dumas. Photograph copyright Richard Dumas and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

PARIS — For her 89th birthday, Juliette Greco gave a lesson in audacity and elegance. Direct, humble, and full of energy. With emotion and without a break, she performed her greatest hits, by way of thanking her fans who flocked here from throughout France to pack the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt on Sunday, February 7.

Against a black background, with black hair, and clad — comme d’habitude for she who made the color the post-War costume de rigueur of Saint-Germain-des-Prés — in a black gown, her ivory hands, quintessentially expressive, preceded her entrance on the stage: a fragile gait lead her to the microphone where she remained for 90 minutes of emotion, of music, and of poetry.

Alone, in her tragedian’s gown, accompanied only by her “two comrades,” she filled the entire stage under lighting both ample and sober. The piano and accordion — played by, respectively, Gerard Jouannest (also her partner in life and the ex- accompaniest and arranger of Jacques Brel) and the virtuoso Jean-Louis Matinier, both of whom almost made themselves invisible, so in osmoses were they with the interpretations of the legendary jolie mome.

The choice of songs was all the more surprising in that the composers were all male — and not the least of males, but the monuments of our musical heritage: Brel (“Ces gens la”), Leo Ferre (“Avec le temps”), Gainsbourg (“La javanaise”) the late Guy Beart (“Il n’y a plus d’apres”), Riviere (Un petite poisson, un petite oiseau”)….

One retains Brel’s “Amsterdam” — Jouannest was also there for the mythic 1964 live recording at the Olympia — an audacious gamble that Greco turned into a hands-up success. It’s this very audacity that makes her a vibrant, living icon, that continues to draw us to her, and that makes her eternal.

Head held high, posture erect, Juliette, the very symbol of insubmission — since the moment when, at 15, she found herself all alone on the Boulevard Hoche where the Germans released her (her mother, arrested by the Germans in Bergerac for helping Frenchmen escape to London to join DeGaulle, and her sister, would be deported) and, later, forging the Club Tabou scene with Vian, Vadim, Sartre and De Beauvoir and, eventually, Miles Davis — and ever in the image of the poets that she incarnates (Sartre wrote her a song and Cocteau featured her in a film, “Orpheus.”), come to thank her audience and these authors, not to bid us “Adieu” but to wake us up and juggle time with the lyrics of “Je n’ai pas vingt ans,” “Les vieux” (written by Brel and Jouannest), “J’arrive,” “Il n’y a plus d’apres,” “Bruxelles,” and more.

Everything is unadorned with Greco. No unnecessary flourishes or extraneous scene elements, no explanations, no percussion to add rhythm to a performance which already has its own pulse, its own crescendos and rhythm.

Thank you, Juliette Greco, for continuing to lift us up and to transmit to us the beauty of words and of life. This exhiliration that you transmit has no age, is timeless, and is necessary. Ne nous quittez pas Juliette, nous aussi nous vous aimons.

Eloïse Alibi is an actress, musician, and singer. Studying the saxophone and the piano since she was a child, she encountered the worlds of the stage and of improvisation early on, eventually studying English, Chinese, theater and song, at institutions ranging from high school in Dublin to conservatory and university in Montpellier (also Juliette Greco’s hometown). She launched her performance career with an original poetry-based work dedicated to Franco-Algerian author Jean Senac, going on to perform the texts of Nazim Hikment, Mahmoud Darwish, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. With the basis of her work remaining poetry, including commissions for events such as the Springtime of Poets, Alibi – has created small ensemble pieces including, most recently, an homage to the oeuvre of Nino Ferrer.