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Ray Didinger on “Tommy and Me”

This week in North Philly Notes,  Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and The New Eagles Encyclopedia, recounts bringing his play Tommy and Mebased on his life, to life on stage.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling Sunday night as Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run from August 3 through 14, I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night we would be going in different directions. Joe Canuso, the director, is going back to work on Rizzo, the play he successful staged last year and is reviving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in September. Matt Pfeiffer, the actor who played me as an adult, is headed to Naples, Florida, to direct a play. Ned Pryce, the actor who played the young Tommy McDonald, is already in rehearsal for a role with the Iron Age Theatre. Tom Teti is rejoining the team at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Simon Kiley, who played the 10-year-old me, is getting ready to start sixth grade at Girard Academic Music Program. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why on Sunday night it was hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 

 

 

Uncanny experiences explained

This week in North Philly Notes, Dennis Waskul, author of Ghostly Encounters,  writes about what prompted him to write about his uncanny experience. 

Whether you are a believer or a skeptic one fact is undeniable: people continue to report uncanny experiences with something that they believe is, or might be, a ghost. Those experiences people have, how they interpret them, and the reasons people believe (or disbelieve) are undeniably real regardless of whether one has faith in the existence of ghosts or, equally, faith in contending that ghosts are a fanciful fiction. In short, ghosts exist as a social and cultural phenomenon, the focus of our research, and the socio-cultural reality of ghosts is entirely independent of the ontology of them. Thus, in Ghostly Encounters, Michele and I have maintained an agnostic perspective on those fundamentally unanswerable questions as we spoke to people who believe they have experienced a ghostly presence and visited places alleged to be haunted. Our focus throughout this book is on the experiences people report, how people arrive at the conclusion that they have encountered a ghostly presence, what those ghosts do to and for people, and the consequences thereof.

Ghostly Encounters_smA wise sociologist, Gary Marx, once taught me to know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist. As Gary phrased it so succinctly, “the scholar starts with questions, not with answers.” Seen in this light, fundamentalists come in many guises, and only some of them are religious. Hence, as scholars, Michele and I sought to start with questions about the ghosts that people allegedly encounter, the unique ways that people interpret them, how those ghosts function in the lives of people, what those ghosts do to and for people. Starting with questions, instead of answers, is always at least a bit risky, and mainly because one does not know where those questions will lead, nor what experiences they might facilitate. Indeed, from beginning to end Ghostly Encounters was an incredible adventure for both Michele and I as it led us to people and places we never expected, in addition to understandings and surprising experiences that we did not anticipate. In the end, we sought to replicate that unforeseen experience for our readers with intimate and accessible forms of ethnographic writing that bring our readers inside of these lived experiences of ghostly encounters, within a highly unique organizational structure that assures unexpected surprises. While we hope our readers find the book both informative and enjoyable, above all we urge anyone interested to equally know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist—and to start with questions, not answers.

Benny Golson returns to Philadelphia

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Benny Golson in images and interviews. Golson visited his hometown of Philadelphia last week to promote his autobiography, Whisper Notco-authored with Jim Merod.

Benny Golson started his day at 91-FM, WHYY’s Radio Times, where he chatted with host Marty Moss-Coane.
There’s no stoppinGolson RTg BENNY GOLSON. The internationally famous jazz composer, arranger, and saxophonist has recorded over 30 albums, and has composed and arranged music for John Coltrane, Miles Davies, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones and many others. This year, at the age of 87, he released a new album called “Horizon Ahead.” Golson was born in Philadelphia in 1929 and has played in the bands of Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. He has composed not only jazz standards, including “Killer Joe” and “Along Came Betty,” but his songs have also appeared in tv shows and films including M*A*S*H and Mission Impossible. Marty talks with Golson about his life, his new autobiography Whisper Not, and what it’s like to be considered an “elder statesman of jazz.”

Benny was also interviewed with Brian Lockman, host of Pennsylvania Cable Network’s PA Books program. The show will air at a future date and be available as a free podcast on iTunes. Benny PCN

During a stop at Temple University’s radio station, WRTI, Benny paused to pose with Art Kane’s 1958 photo, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Golson is one of the last two surviving members of the famous photograph.

Golson Great Day

Golson capped off the day with an appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was interviewed by WRTI‘s Jeff Duperon. This video records their conversation.

IMG_0168

Saxophonist and composer Benny Golson learned his instrument and the vocabulary of jazz while still in high school in Philadelphia. Over the course of an illustrious 60-year career, he has recorded more than 30 albums, written well over 300 compositions, and given hundreds of performances around the globe alongside dozens of jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Earl Bostic, and Art Blakey. “A composer with an unusually brilliant melodic sense” (New York Times), his major contributions to the world of jazz include the standards Killer Joe, Along Came Betty, Whisper Not, and Five Spot After Dark. His new book, Whisper Not, is a collection of anecdotes and photographs that recount the high and low notes of a life dedicated to jazz.

As the night ended, Golson posed with and signed books and records(!) for his adoring fans. 

Honoring the achievement of African American writers

This week in North Philly Notes, we post an excerpt from Werner Sollors’ new book, African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In a lecture on “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” Richard Wright said that the literature should be understood against the background of the global movement from traditional, rural, religiously based, and pre-individual cultures, to modern, urban, industrial, secular, and stridently individual, societies. It is for this reason that, despite all specificities and differences, “one ought to use the same concepts in discussing Negro life that one used in discussing white life.” In this context, Wright arrived at one of his most famous quips:

 The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written  in vivid and bloody terms; it is the history of Western Man writ small. It is the history of men who tried to adjust themselves to a world whose laws, customs, and instruments of force were leveled against them. The Negro is America’s metaphor.

Today’s students may find Wright’s gendered language and the very word “Negro” antiquated, if not reactionary. Yet they may be overlooking the Enlightenment legacy both of the study of black literature–that began in the wake of the French Revolution with Abbé Henri Grégoire–and of the language of the “rights of man”–that could easily be imagined to stand for men and women: even the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments spoke of “the family of man” in articulating its hope for gender equality. The term “Negro,” too, though it was disparaged by 1960s radicals and satirized by LeRoi Jones as “knee-grow,” was once a dignified term into which the hope for full equality was inscribed. For Wright, the Negro as America’s metaphor was also a mirror for white America. Near the end of his lecture, he said:

The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we have all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims. Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives.

“Negro literature” was a global term, capacious enough to include writers anywhere in the world. In fact, from Gustavus Vassa to LeRoi Jones himself, writers most commonly employed the word “Negro” to describe themselves as well as people of African ancestry more generally. Early scholarship in the field in America, much of it written by intellectuals who had to work within the constraints of a racial segregation, supported the political strAfrican American Writing-smuggle for equality and integration. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (1818) and of Abraham Lincoln (1809), a black man and a white man, who together symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of full equality. Woodson had pioneered in history with such classic studies as The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915) and The History of the Negro Church (1924), and with an early focus on the history of what in the United States is called “miscegenation” (interracial sexual, marital, and family relations). Benjamin Brawley published literary histories that included The Negro Genius (1937); Eva B. Dykes demonstrated the significance of the antislavery struggle for English Romantic literature in The Negro in English Romantic Thought; or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (1941); the poet-critic Sterling A. Brown critiqued stereotypes and highlighted realistic portrayals in American writing in his Negro Poetry and Negro Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937); Benjamin Mays pioneered in the study of religion and published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); the immensely productive historian John Hope Franklin offered a helpfully synthesizing textbook to complement American history textbooks, From Slavery to Freedom (1947); Frank Snowden, who in 1944 submitted his Latin dissertation “De Servis Libertisque Pompeianis,” focused in his Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983) on the role of blacks in the ancient world, a time when there were no black laws or bans on miscegenation; and Marion W. Starling (1946) and Charles H. Nichols (1948) undertook the first full-scale doctoral work on the slave narrative. Such scholarship had the effect of writing blacks into American and global history, rectifying omissions and neglect, and setting the record straight against the then dominant American scholarly opinion that slighted the importance and contributions of blacks. Perhaps the work of generations of “integrationist” scholars (and “integrationist,” once a fighting word, has also become a problematic term) deserves to be considered afresh today and to be taken as guide in rereading major works of literature and debates about the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation.

A Blueprint for the Possible

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill V. Mullen, author of Un-Americanwrites about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Un-American was inspired by calls for social justice. In 2012, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, a group of Chicago youth created the group “We Charge Genocide” to document police shootings of African-Americans in the city: http://wechargegenocide.org/about/. The group took its name from the 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” co-signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, Du Bois, William Patterson, Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, Paul Robeson, and a host of Black radicals accused the United States of state-sanctioned mass killings of African Americans. The petition was the first ever presented to an international body linking judicial killings in the U.S. to American imperialism abroad. It sutured American state violence at home to the dropping of atomic bombs overseas and the U.S. occupation of foreign lands. It called for a stop to both, and demanded that the United Nations recognize the historical grievances of African Americans as a problem demanding a global response.  Its subtitle might have been, “No Justice, No Peace.”
SoulsBlackFolksThe historical memory of Dr. Du Bois as an instigator and agitator of world-historical change is one Un-American seeks to resurrect and reconstruct. Too often, the W.E.B. presented in high school and University classrooms and in public commemoration is a genteel Dean of African American letters, an avuncular “race man” whose career is often reduced to sound bite-size passages from The Souls of Black Folk on “double consciousness,” his political thought caricatured as the frowning narrative of a village elder who drifted from civil rights dedication to blind advocate for socialism.

American exceptionalism, anti-Communism, and the Cold War have much to do with this misremembering and misrepresentation. Du Bois’s books were removed from shelves during the 1950s and 1960s owing to his statements of support for revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Close friends, Black and White, abandon Du Bois late in life when he refused to denounce Stalin’s crimes, and continued to criticize the U.S. government as what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the modern world.

Un-American argues that remembering Dr. Du Bois accurately, and fully, requires remembering him as the rest of the world saw him and knew him. Because of his radical political commitments, Du Bois’s stature as a public intellectual and global figure rose outside the United States in inverse proportion to his shaming and blacklisting at home. Not just in the Communist world he himself embraced, but across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Du Bois by the end of his life was something like the Muhammad Ali of African American intellectuals of his time. His global reputation for international support for anti-colonial struggles, for the struggles of working-class people, for his criticism of imperialisms in all forms, also paved the way for world-wide recognition of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who were themselves inspired by Du Bois’s global political and intellectual reach. Indeed, Du Bois was a transnational globe-trotting voice for change throughout his life, from his first, trip to Berlin as a student in 1892, to his death in Ghana in 1963.

Un-American_smUn-American then seeks to remember the “worldly” Du Bois whose embrace of and support for what the Communist International called “world revolution” is the most important vector of his political life and legacy. Recognizing this Du Bois means leaving behind not just provincial, nationalist frameworks for analysis, but appreciating the “scholar-activism” Du Bois himself set for himself as the highest bar of achievement. Put another way, writing a book about Du Bois in 2015 demands thinking through the warp and woof of theory and practice as it relates to building social movements, constructing international solidarity, conjuring transnational affiliation. It means engaging honestly and critically with the best and worst of revolutions made in the name of justice across the world in the last century, mindful of Walter Benjamin’s caution that “progress” can be both an excuse and a euphemism for brutality.

At the end of his life it was Du Bois the advocate for peace, for economic equality, for popular sovereignty, for universal health care, for women’s emancipation, for decolonization, for workers’ rights, for a nuclear-free world, that the planet grieved for in his passing. Un-American seeks to recreate a memory of that Du Bois as a way of mobilizing it and him for our own present and future.  As a current generation struggles against the same forces of police violence and racism the impelled Du Bois forward more than 70 years ago, we do well to remember that the long arc of his life and career bent not just toward justice but to political and social revolution. His life remains a blueprint for the possible.

Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon

by Michael Ezra

1923_regMichael Ezra blogs about Muhammad Ali and his inspiration for writing Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (now available from Temple University Press).

Although I am not yet forty years old, my relationship with Muhammad Ali the literary figure spans three decades. As just another seven-year-old dragged to the flea market by his bargain-hunting father, I used my only dollar to purchase a worn copy of the book Muhammad Ali: The Holy Warrior by Don Atyeo and Felix Dennis. I didn’t really understand the book or the photo captions, but found it interesting nonetheless.
In sixth grade, when the teacher asked the class what profession we desired as adults, I answered “boxing historian.” During the summer before my senior year in college, my father and I, still searching for literary bargains (we had graduated to outlet malls by then) came upon a discount copy of Thomas Hauser’s definitive biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. I bought it and declared that I would write my undergraduate thesis about Ali.

Almost twenty years after I completed the thesis, Temple University Press published my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Ali was the subject of both my master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation. I have read countless pages about him—which makes sense because he holds the Guinness World Record as the most written about figure in history, ahead of Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, and Jesus—watched hours of videotape and spent years thinking about how to make meaning of one of the most misunderstood figures in American cultural history.

For all that is written about Ali, nobody had ever explored in depth how the economic consequences of his career affected his cultural image. The predominant narratives about Ali frame his politics—refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, joining the Nation of Islam, remaking himself as a figure of tolerance and racial reconciliation—as paramount to how Americans have come to understand him.
Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon does not deny the importance of Ali’s politics, but also urges readers to consider how people have capitalized by spinning such narratives into allegories. Throughout Ali’s fifty years in the limelight, people have made money by framing him as an American hero, a villain, a moral force, or an all-time-great fighter. My book details how these processes have worked.

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