Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Is A Gift / "Happy Birthday Mom!"

Yesterday my Mom turned seventy!  “And no one would know because she looks so fierce!” (I proudly declared this in my latest Facebook status).  But honestly, my Mother looks amazing.  She has the energy of a forty-year-old soccer mom with a van-full of adolescents.  And since my father passed away three years ago, she seems to have grown exponentially younger.  So much so, that I will probably have to keep reminding myself for a while that she is now, officially, a septuagenarian.

She was born on December 17th, 1942, in the middle of World War II, in Kassel, Germany.  Her father was an ex-Nazi, her mother was an artist, and when she was just fifteen years old, she met a black man for the very first time (an American soldier), and fell in love with him.  She married him (before it was legal in some places in the US for interracial couples to wed), and stayed married to him, through thick and thin for fifty years until his death in October of 2009.  At seventy, she has been a faithful wife; and she is still very much a world class mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. 

Why do I share this?  Because we live in a day and age where time is seen as some cruel being that tethers our own ideas of success to itself; like a big juicy steak on-a-string before a hungry dog.  And we chase after “that thing” to the point of exhaustion.  If we catch it, we consume it… then we are still hungry.  So we go after more bait.  If we never catch it, we grow weary, and we begin to give up on the dreams in our hearts, that never actually had anything to do with meat. 

But the secret to success is hidden in a life well lived (not in steak!).  When I look at my mother, someone who was born into a conflict zone; took racial stigma in stride for the sake of love; and has not wrestled, but danced with life like a willing partner on a ballroom floor; I can boldly declare… Time is a gift!  And regardless of circumstances that we must face, the choices that we make determine the legacy that we leave.


Wow!  Seventy whole years, and you still look amazing!  I know many say that ‘Time goes by fast.’  But I wouldn’t say that is true for you, Mom.  I would say that, for you, time goes by sweetly.  With everything that this family has been through, I believe that each year you have become sweeter, and more beautiful.  So far, I have had twenty-eight incredible years to be raised by you, and to learn who you are.  And I mean it when I say that each year gets better.  I wouldn’t trade in the Mom you are today for the Mom you were yesterday.  And I am so excited for the Mom you are becoming.  Because life is about a journey.  And it is only time, patience, and perseverance that perfect us.  I have learned that from watching you live your life so bravely and so selflessly. 

So don’t listen to all of those old fogies!  Time is not your enemy.  He is your friend.  Because you are simply stunning!

                                                                                    Love (Your Son),

Sunday, July 1, 2012


 “Sir, can you please close that!”

This was the second time the usher rebuked me for being on my computer (though technically the service had not yet started.)

“Oh… sorry… I am actually typing out some old sermon notes…”

“Yes, but you are still in church.”  She sharply interjected.

I didn’t know what to say.  But it would be wrong to get into a fight with a little old lady in the house of God… right?  So, I bit my tongue, stopped typing mid-sentence, and obeyed.  I closed my laptop, tucked it safely away in my bag, and then I folded my hands. I was waiting for Kevin, a fellow actor friend of mine, to join me. 

I wasn’t sure how this was going to go down.  Kevin hadn’t been to church in years (maybe he too encountered the wrath of the laptop police).  But we had a few good spiritual conversations under our belts, so I was excited that he was coming just the same... excited… but also a bit uneasy.  Sometimes inviting friends to church is like taking them to a movie that you yourself have not yet seen; or like bringing a guest to a family reunion where you know it’s possible a crazy uncle or two is going to be lurking.  It’s a gamble.  You don’t know what the content is going to be, so you feel responsible for the overall experience.  But at least I could blame whatever happened in church on Jesus… right?

“Are these seats taken?”

A middle-aged couple that seemed nice enough gestured towards the two empty seats to my left.

“No… go for it.”  I smiled (I like smiling).

“Where are you from?”  The husband canon-balled right into the conversation pool.

“Los Angeles.  But I live and work here in New York.”  I replied.

“Oh ok… Where do you work?” 

I was excited to answer this question, as it was the reason I moved to the city in January of 2005…

“I actually work here in the theater district.  I am in a Broadway show at the moment… Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”  I was on an 8-show a week schedule, so it was more than convenient to find a church that met in an old Broadway house only a few blocks away.  I could come in for the Sunday AM service, and bolt out in time for the matinee show.

“Oh…” They both looked surprised.  I interpreted their reaction to be rooted in excitement for me…  “Are you gay?”

As I pumped my boundary breaks, I could literally hear the sound of tires screeching; screaming; scrubbing the road of our conversation with the burning rubber of awkward.  I laughed uncomfortably.  Then I realized that Mr. and Mrs. Invasive had both frozen their curious expressions, as if to hold me accountable to an answer.

“No.  I am not gay.”  I saw their stereotype balloons pop over their heads.

“Well… how are you serving the Lord?”  The interrogation continued.

“How are YOU serving the Lord?!?”  I really wanted to fire this question back at them.  Instead, I replied calmly…  “Well, I am serving the Lord by pursuing the opportunities and utilizing the talents He has given me.”  This was the only thing I could think of to say.  But I didn’t completely understand the implications of my answer…

“Hey bro.”  Kevin rescued me from their mini-inquisition.  Slightly relieved, I turned to greet him.  I smiled at the couple, and indicated my need to tend to my guest, just in time for the curtain to open to a multi-racial Gospel choir. 

When the live music kicked in, and the choir began to lead us in worship, my heart could do nothing else but be swooned by the excitement in the atmosphere (gospel will do that to you).  Initially, it was hard to engage, as my new friends to my left were hollering at the top of their lungs just slightly off key (that can be like nails to a chalkboard to anyone who is musical).  But I was sure that God was moved by their passion, so I got over it, and I raised my hands in song with hundreds of others gathered.

At the end of the service, I felt refreshed.  I had almost forgotten that I was accosted an hour-and-a-half before.  I looked over at Kevin (subtle enough that he didn’t notice me, or feel pressure to respond.)  He seemed to have been moved. I did not want to disrupt whatever was going on in his heart.  When someone encounters the presence of God, it is a delicate moment that should not be disturbed.  It is like walking in on a baby who has just been put down, and fallen asleep to the soothing touch of a mother’s palm.  I purposely sat in silence until both of us were ready to… “SO WHAT DID YOU THINK?” (insert record scratch here).  The question was launched meticulously, like a heat-seeking missile, up over my head, destined to fall upon the ears of my friend.  I wanted to bat it away before it was too late, but in my mind, I had already taken cover.  “Oh no!!!”  I screamed in my head.  “It’s THEM!”  Mr. and Mrs. Pharisee struck again…

… “I loved it.”  Though their forthrightness was jarring, Kevin’s response was honest.  He didn’t seem to be too bothered by their religious zeal.  But I wanted to get him far away from THEM…  because I could sense it coming... and sooner than I expected…  “HAVE YOU EVER ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST BEFORE?”  I don’t think they had even asked for his name (of course they never asked for mine).  Silence.  “Uh… no… I have never ac-” “WOULD YOU LIKE TO?”  I was stunned as I found the top of my head now nestled under this man’s armpit.  He had already assumed the position: hand on Kevin’s shoulder; head bowed; and I could see the tally marks of new converts, behind the agenda spewing out from his eyes.  I’m sure he meant well… “Uh… yes… I would… (question mark)…”  Kevin went along with it.  I didn’t want to stop this significant moment if it was real.  But I could feel Kevin’s discomfort as he was bulldozed into repeating a formula of words that left him more confused than anything.  It’s a shame that religion can blind us from recognizing that God is a master at meeting us where we are. 

We didn’t talk much about “the incident” afterwards.  But he also never came to church with me again.  It is a funny position to be in:  a follower of Jesus protecting my friends from some Christians.  But unfortunately, I have found myself in that place often.  And as an artist, I have felt, all the more, a void in the presence of vicious religiosity.  Nothing brings death more swiftly than a religious debate.  Nothing brings life more swiftly than the presence of God.

I remember listening to a pastor speak once.  He shared that there are five major cities in the United States that have essentially been condemned by the Church:  Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York (all the fun ones!).  These cities have been marked with a giant scarlet letter “A” because of their rebellion against God.  Subsequently, His wrath will soon fall upon each of them.  In response to a skewed point of view, this man stressed the importance of recognizing the power of life that rests on our tongues; that we have a choice to love and bless instead of judge and curse.  I began to think about the many times I have heard the great city of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry spoken against; the first time a religious Christian told me I was going to hell without knowing or perceiving even a stitch of my spiritual journey; every time I stepped into a space where I felt restricted to express the love of God through every part of me, namely my God-given Creativity.  My heart began to burn violently within me.  And at the top of a Q&A following the message, I jumped up…

“I am from Los Angeles, born and raised, and I see the glory of God everywhere I go.  I am also an artist in the entertainment industry, and there are names and faces of people that are friends of mine, that are ‘the condemned’.  I am so tired of ‘church folk’ speaking death against cities that they neither live in, nor carry any authority over, and I don’t think it’s very wise for them to speak against cities that influence the world through arts and culture in the first place.  What would you recommend to people who are in my position?”

I was moved by his answer…  “Never get caught up in religious debates.  Just show people Heaven.”  (Bill Johnson)  I felt empowered by this.  But a big “HOW?!?” in a bubble began dancing over my head…

Thursday, June 28, 2012


The most exciting thing about theatre, if you appreciate the nuances of live performance, is that you can never experience the same thing twice.  As the performer, every night you get to embark on a fresh journey with your fellow cast members; to discover new things; to build a unique relationship with each audience.  And mistakes don’t exist, only a series of unforeseen moments to respond to.  No matter what has been rehearsed, you cannot map out the next few hours of your life.  Upon the rise of the curtain, “the show must go on…”

In February of 2004, I was in the middle of a world tour of a show that every musical theater performer would dream of being cast in, Fosse.  It was the ultimate ensemble piece, twenty or so in the cast, featuring some of the greatest musical and dance numbers set for both the stage and the screen by legendary choreographer and director, Bob Fosse.  And the icing on the cake?  We were in Paris for a six-week run, and privileged to have one of the greatest Broadway stars of all time leading us, Mr. Ben Vereen.

“What are you doing?”  Sarah, my “Steam Heat” partner, crouched down next to me in a changing station backstage.  I was sitting on the floor, with one shoe on and one shoe off… “I am thinking about jumping onstage with Ben.”  Her eyes widened as she smiled and gasped with excitement.  “Do it!!!”  She joined me on the floor, and we both scrambled to get my other tap shoe on.

On this particular night, about twenty minutes after “go time”, the sound system crashed right smack in the middle of a high-energy, fast-moving number.  But the entire company continued dancing and singing without music.  (Technical difficulties happen, but never dire enough to stop the show.)  Then the curtain dropped in front of us.  So we took the cue, and filed offstage through the wings, to rest until the problem was fixed.  Mr. Vereen didn’t miss a beat.  He u-turned from behind the curtain, and swiped the emergency wireless mic from stage left.  The spotlight hit him as he exploded back onstage, a glorious reveal!  “Bon soir Paris!!!”  As he broke the fourth wall for the first time, he was met with uproarious applause.  It was an interruption.  But to the audience, this moment was no faux pas.  It was a gift…

“Oh… they say some people long ago… were looking for a different tune… one that they could croon…as only they can…”

I watched from offstage in awe as this consummate artist opened his mouth to sing the first line of The Birth of the Blues.  Then he signaled for the conductor to assemble a small jazz combo from the orchestra pit, to back him up impromptu. The crowd was thrilled…

“They only had the rhythm so… they started swaying to and fro… they didn’t know just what to use… but this is how the blues… really began…”

The entire audience (including the cast and crew of Fosse) was witnessing magic in the making, beautiful chaos.  I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face as I studied every move and sound.  Then it occurred to me…  “This is not a classroom…  There are no rules…  This IS the show tonight… And ANYTHING can happen.”  I felt a boldness rear up in me, and suddenly I wanted to be onstage WITH him.  And as time passed, this urge was growing stronger.  So I waited to see if we would continue where we left off, upon the last note of The Birth of the Blues…  (applause) …  (silence) …  “That Old Black Magic has me in its spell… That Old Black Magic that you weave so well…” The band followed his voice into another jazz standard, and I bolted to the changing station…

Once my shoes were on, laces tied, I rose up from the ground… “Under that Old Black Magic called Love...” I could still hear Ben singing from behind the backdrop.  I couldn’t believe what I was about to do.  Then something hit me in a cold flash…  And I froze...  “Now, what exactly ARE you going to do?” …  “He’s Ben Vereen!  Who the heck are YOU?” … A barrage of doubt flew into my atmosphere of thought.  “What the heck am I doing?”  As I began to agree with the gray cloud of negative opinions swirling around me, a one-ton anvil seemed to materialize from within my stomach…  And then I knew what was happening…or WHO was happening I should say…  And I could almost picture a face…

            Hello Fear.  Once again I have found you in this familiar place… at this intersection of Risk and Uncertainty.  I know you’re here to falsely comfort me; coddle me; pat my cushion of Convenience, that I might sit back down and rest safely and soundly.  But I am desperate to see what is on the other side of the great wall of Opportunity that stands before me.  I am determined to scale that magnificent rampart that you would do anything to keep me from.  You see… I believe there are certain promises that unfold whenever I run into you; and then run forward, in spite of you, with uninhibited faith that something spectacular awaits me.  I have seen how you partner with Circumstance to paralyze Humanity.  So I refuse to pitch a tent with you on the campgrounds of Complacency…

As I approached the stage, in an effort to garner courage, I started rifling through brain files for some reference; some recipe for what I was about to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Then I thought about my last “show-stopping” confrontation with Fear…

I was a part of the first American musical to grace the Russian stage. Our show was co-produced by an American company, and a Russian guy named Boris (who I am pretty sure was in the Mafia). We left the States in September, rehearsed for six weeks, and opened in October with a bang…

I was eighteen…
It was my first job out of high school…
My first time overseas… 
And my very first terrorist attack... 

42nd Street cast and crew! Please quickly and calmly exit the building…”

I was in Moscow during The Nord-Ost Siege, a theater hostage crisis that grabbed the world’s attention…

The ordeal happened Wednesday night, October 23rd, 2002, at the Dubrovka Theater.  The Russian Musical Nord-Ost (Northeast) was one of three major productions playing in the city.  After the intermission, at the top of the second act, the full male ensemble was tap-dancing onstage at the climax of a musical number.  Suddenly 40 to 50 armed men and women, who claimed allegiance to an Islamist separatist movement, emerged from the audience and seized the entire theatre. They took 850 hostages and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the Second Chechen War.  If the Russian government did not comply, the female rebels (who were all strapped with explosives) were instructed to blow the entire complex up.  After a two-and-a-half day standoff, Russian forces pumped an unknown chemical agent into the building's ventilation system and raided it.  39 of the attackers were killed, along with at least 129 of the hostages (including nine foreigners)… Roughly 170 people died in all.

“… Don’t bother changing out of costume, hair, or make-up… Get out… now!”

We knew our stage manager wasn’t joking.  It had been a month since the Nord-Ost incident, but bomb threats pop-corned all around the city.  And this was the first time we were ordered to evacuate immediately.  So we slid out of the theater, and into the snow (tap shoes, wigs, make-up and all!).  We scurried across the icy parking lot, and into a sushi restaurant we had claimed as a refuge house during the last two bomb scares.  I don’t know what the Russian name for the place was.  But we called it “Bomb Scare Sushi”… “Happy Thanksgiving!”   We said with jaded smiles, and toasted with hot sake…

In addition to finding ourselves at the center of an international crisis, we had already survived a number of things; rehearsing in a space that resembled a concentration camp, ridden with stray dogs and guarded by machine-gun-clad soldiers; a McDonalds car bombing; a political assassination; and… a gigantic language barrier…

One day in between shows, I had a craving for a milkshake.  There was only one problem.  I only knew the Russian word for “milk”.  But I didn’t know how to communicate the “shake” part in this completely foreign language with an entirely different alphabet.  So on my way over to a Russian McDonalds, I devised a plan.  And I knew it would be brilliant.  I pushed through the glass doors, and there were about 10 people standing in line.  That bought me some time to prepare.

“Da?” (That means “yes” in Russian)… The young woman at the register was already sizing me up (probably because I was wearing the stupidest, most clueless, cheesy, all-American grin ever).  “Priviet” (“Hello”)… That was one of the few words I knew.  Before I commenced, I looked up to see if I could point.  But alas, the screen was too far away, and jumbled in a collage of menu items and Russian words I could neither read nor pronounce.  Then I tried to order in English, but with a Russian accent.  (I love that when Americans can’t speak a foreign language in a foreign country, our default is to speak English in our interpretation of that foreign accent)… “I would like” …  but by the deadpan look on her face, this would be a long shot… So I proceeded with “the plan”.

I locked eyes with her.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I thought that where I lacked in language, I could make up for in telepathy.  I spoke… “Moloko” (“Milk”)… (dramatic pause)… then I hugged myself, and I started to “shake” my head and body emphatically, allowing my lips to whiplash, and release sounds that magnified the effects of being shaken.  I stopped to see if she got it on the first try.

How we respond to circumstances in the midst of a crisis reveals who we truly are on in the inside.  Not being able to order a milkshake when you really want one, and in a foreign country, is a dire situation.  And if my response unleashed the idiot from within, then so be it!  I accepted in the moment that I was asking her to play Charades with me at the front of a McDonalds line in the middle of Moscow… “Moloko”… (action for “shake”)… “Moloko”… (action for “shake”)… And I wasn’t worried about the ever-increasing throng of hungry (now angry) Russian patrons gathering behind me.  I had been “risking my life” entertaining them tirelessly, night after night.  The least they could do was wait until I got my freaking milkshake! 

I started losing hope in the young woman at the register, as her deadpan stare was now evolving into one that communicated irritation.  I emitted a long, audible breath, expressing my sadness.  Then I ordered a Coke… “Okay… Coca Cola.”  I walked out of McDonalds a little disappointed, but with my head held high, and certainly not thirsty…

42nd Street was scheduled to run in Moscow for nine months.  The plug was pulled, and we were sent home after four.  Only then did we realize how close we came to utter disaster.  An HBO documentary on the siege, Terror In Moscow, was produced and released a year later, and most of the live footage used in the film belonged to the deceased terrorists themselves.  Apparently, only a few days before the fanatics apprehended the Nord-Ost venue, one of the Chechen gunmen had videotaped another potential target… the musical, 42nd Street.  The militant group had collected footage of the building, and of all the entrances and exits.  My mouth dropped as one snippet revealed my entire cast walking into the theater, just another night onstage for us… one menacing decision away from eminent danger.

The opening statement of the 25-year-old leader of the rebellion sent chills down my spine … “We’ve come to Russia’s capital city to stop the war or die for Allah… We’ll perish here, taking hundreds of unbelievers with us.  I swear to Allah, we desire death more than you want life… Allah is great.”  I could not help but imagine myself in a sequence of events that could very well have been an alternative fate.  The hostages lived on nothing but water and chocolate.  And the orchestra pit served as a public bathroom, men on the left and women on the right.  “People didn’t drink on purpose so they wouldn’t need to go.  It was a dreadful feeling, rolling up your trousers so they wouldn’t get soaked,” a survivor recalled.

            One first-hand account came from a 42nd Street dresser, and my friend, Sveta.  She was doing double duty, working in the wardrobe departments for both 42nd Street and Nord-Ost.  We hadn’t seen her for a couple of days, from the start of the invasion.  When she finally returned to work with us, she shared how she and some other women hid in an undiscovered section backstage.  They called Russian authorities from within the walls, and were drilled out to safety from the outside of the facility.

I was heavily impacted by one story of a man who was on the creative team for Nord-Ost“I thought I’d try to sit closer to the main bomb, and get to know the woman in charge of the detonator,” he said without blinking to the camera.  “Who knows?  Perhaps at the critical moment I could push her hand away or rip out the wires.  We talked about lots of things, about the role of women in Islam, about art.  She admitted, reluctantly, that she’d enjoyed the show, and she knew I was the co-writer.  Oddly enough she needed to share her impressions of the show.  She wrote an Arabic phrase on a scrap of paper, and told me to say it aloud at the moment of my death.  If I recited it, then I’d be accepted in paradise as a Muslim.  It read, ‘There is no God but Allah.’ ”

Such a dichotomy of character and emotion displayed in this artist:  fierce heroism in the face of death, to be prepared to take the woman down as an enemy; tender compassion, to engage in a human conversation with her, acknowledging her eye to eye, as a comrade and admirer of his work.  The definition of Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”  That art can move to a degree where it shifts the atmosphere, proclaims life over death, and disarms the very energy that threatens its existence, speaks of the power of creativity…  Creativity releases the capacity to love…  And “Perfect Love casts out all fear.”

“Go for it!”  I had the support of my fellow cast members; still I was shaking and perspiring… “You’re the lover I have waited for… You’re the mate that Fate had me created for… And every time your lips meet mine”… I was now standing at the mouth of the stage, ten feet away from Ben Vereen.  He was approaching the end of the song.  “Last chance.” I thought to myself.  The only bit of security I could cling to was the wing I hid behind.  “I’m under that Old Black Magic called…” I stretched out my right leg to take my first step… then I could swear someone pushed me… Into the light I went.

To choose love over fear… This is the mark of beauty.
To find beauty in chaos… This is the mark of creativity.
The synthesis of beauty and creativity… This is the work of God.