Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tourist Visits in Brief

In more exploring of my local area (part of my tourist at home plan), I revisited two local spots: The Ringling in Sarasota, and Sunken Gardens here in St. Petersburg.  Not surprisingly, Sunken Gardens remains my favorite; lush nature is hard to best.

Ca d'Zan
At the Ringling (free! with my MFA-St Pete SERM reciprocal membership), I toured the museum, wandering by the enormous gold-gilt frames in the regular collection, but that day, there was little with which I truly connected; some days, even I'm not feeling arty. Plus, given my general leanings toward more modern and abstract work, while, for example, the panting of Biblical decapitation was arresting, it wasn't for me. I was looking for the newly-built Asian wing, but must have missed it in my ambling, instead getting caught up in my fondness for the grounds - the rose garden and the enormous Banyan trees remain favorites. For the first time, I ventured into the Circus museum. I understand that they are pushing the idea of the greatest show on earth, the magical wonder of childhood and that they are obligated to present the Ringling family as snappy positive businessmen, but the truth is, I associate the circus more with caged animals and lawsuits on the the treatment of elephants. The greatest show had a viciousness underneath that, as an adult, is difficult to ignore. It did, however, certainly make the Ringlings a good deal of money, as further evidenced by Ca d'Zan, John and Mable Ringling's spectacularly ornate home overlooking the water.  Built before the crash, it's a peek into the opulence of an era.

Sunken Gardens
Sunken Gardens, meanwhile, feels to be less of a sanitized homage to vast wealth, despite its history as a privately-run Florida attraction. The 4-acre botanic garden originally started in 1903 as a private garden, which led to selling fruit from the trees, which led to nickel tours, which led to more extensive tours.  It's now owned by the City of St. Petersburg, and is one of the oldest attractions in the state.  On a breezy Florida afternoon, there are few places more lovely, with soaring palm trees, multitudes of blooming plants, and the largest wall of bougainvillea I've ever seen. Of course, Sunken Gardens too has its caged animals - a variety of birds squawk hello.  They are housed in large and spacious cages, and the birds, as well as I can tell, are happy, healthy and content. Still, some part of me wishes those birds were still soaring through some tropical jungle; to not have enough space to fly when you have wings seems a punishment no matter how much birdseed is available.  I suspect that is my thinking more than the birds though, or at least, I hope so.  We humans do so love the complex safety of our cages, be they fancy houses or metal bars.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Peter Pan: Time to Grow Up to 2016

I had the opportunity to see a friend's children on stage recently, as their school put on a production of Peter Pan, the 1954 musical version.  The children -- my friend's, and all the children participating -- put on a truly fantastic show, from the sets and costumes to Peter and the Darling children flying about the stage, singing and dancing.  They created and performed the full musical theater experience.  The senior that played Captain Hook turned in a particularly impressive performance, infusing his character with the perfect balance of venom, cowardice, and campy humor.  The singing across the cast impressed me with their range, confidence and emotion.  I loved to see the smallest cast members from the lower school earnestly playing their parts. Overall, I would not be surprised to see some of these kids go on to livelihoods in the theater. But I left the theater uncomfortable all the same. My discomfort with the show stems not from the performance of the kids in any way; they were excellent, and their hard work displayed professional results.  My unease instead comes more from the choice of Peter Pan itself, the choice to use the 1954 stage version without updating that could have made it more palatable to a more racially sensitive climate of 2016.

In the, oh, 30 or 40 years since I've seen any rendition of Peter Pan, most of its details had evaporated from my memory. There was Neverland, and Peter and the Lost Boys and never growing up, and, of course, the ticking of the crocodile, but that was about all I had retained. What I had forgotten is that when the Darling children leave London and arrive in Neverland, the Lost Boys are avoiding not just Hook's Pirates, but also Tiger Lily and her Indians. And that's where I felt pulled into the creepiness of 1954: crowds of kids, mostly white but some of color, were dressed up in faux warpaint and feathers. Tiger Lily and Peter Pan's big song, when they agree to be allies, is Ugg-A-Wugg; as you might guess, it's not exactly an homage to the complexity of any Native American language or culture. As much as I wanted to support the young thespians, the representation of Native Americans made me cringe.  

White privilege often comes with a portion of obliviousness, and here I'll guess it is that blindness at work, a failure to see, rather than a more direct hostility and dismissal of concerns. Perhaps those that decided on the choice of this musical simply didn't see the problems. Peter Pan was a raving success in 1954, a classic, so why not run with it? But it seems odd to me that they didn't research the production history at all, and see that, in fact, people had noted the racist issues interlaced in the musical, and made changes.  In 1994, a school production was canceled because of concerns (see NYTimes article here). Just recently, in the 2014 NBC production on television, they decided to re-write "Ugg-A-Wugg" and changed the title to "True Blood Brothers" (an interesting discussion with the Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, the adviser on changes to "Ugg-a-Wugg," is available here). As the article "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe" by Sarah Laskow notes, "There's no real reason for a tribe of Native live on Neverland, where they are impossible to excise from the story. But it's almost as impossible to depict them in a way that's not offensive."

As a former resident of Washington, DC, a town whose football team is still called the Washington Redskins, it's not as if I am not completely unaware of the casual racism applied to Native Americans, or, in some contexts, virtually any other non straight-white-male-Christian group.  Much of the time, if I say anything, I'm viewed as that humorless liberal that takes things too seriously.  We are after all in the era of Trump, where it is unpopular to be sensitive to political correctness (or indeed, apparently, basic human decency -- but I digress). Here's the thing though: if you say nothing, if you don't note the language and presentation, if you let "tradition" stand, then all the -isms keep on going unchallenged, and nothing changes. So in my quiet writerly way, I am trying to say more when I can, even when its socially awkward.

More than musical success, more than acting accolades, what I want most for the children that were on that stage -- particularly the girls and young women and people of color, or any kids with any hint of "otherness" -- I want them to feel that every voice matters. Part of their responsibility as they grow into adulthood is to acknowledge the ways in which their choices can help, and can hinder, the progress of society as a whole toward a more true equality.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Being a Tourist at Home

You know how you when you have guests in town, you get around to doing all the things that you've been meaning to do in your hometown because you want to entertain folks?  And in that process, you fall in love with your little world all over again?  My latest resolution is to become a tourist of the Tampa Bay area.

On that note, I (finally) took my borrowed bike down to Fort De Soto and inexpertly but enthusiastically pedaled my way over ten miles of bike paths.  Along the way I saw leggy birds, odd blooming cacti, palm trees galore, spectacular clouds, the ferry to Egmont key, a few other happy tourists/locals (my thanks to the people that offered help when I was fussing with my brakes), sand, shells, and the wonder of the Gulf reflecting dappled light. I breathed salt air, almost ran into a parked car when my foot slid off of a pedal creating an impressive wobble, and took a few photographs.

Where the trail ends, East Beach, Fort De Soto Park

So far, I'm loving this staycation.  More explorations to come.