Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Big Easy Theater Awards

Master of Ceremonies Bryan Batt, right, with partner Tom Cianfichi

Last night the New Orleans theater community honored its own at the 2011 Big Easy Theater Awards. It was a grand night as the awards ceremony hosted by Broadway and screen actor Bryan Batt returned to Harrah's Casino after a one-year hiatus. More importantly, it signaled the separation again of the theatre awards from the music awards that honor local musicians. Those ceremonies will be held next month at Harrah's. Top honors for Best Musical went to Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carre's "Hairspray," many of whose performers were underage and could not attend the ceremonies held at Harrah's Theater because it is in the adults-only gaming hall. Best Drama honors went to "Frozen," produced by the Crescent Theatre Collective, while Theatre 13 snagged the Best Comedy award with their frenetic paced "The 39 Steps." The Honorary Theater Awards Chairman was Dennis Assaf, the artistic and executive director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. John O'Neal, the founder of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Theater for his nearly five decades worth of accomplishments in local and national theater Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeff Roberson) received the 2011 Theater Entertainer of the Year Award, accepting in a taped message designed to appear as a live feed from Skype. Su Gonczy, the dedicated lighting director and girl Friday at Le Chat Noir, who helped guide the show's technical direction, was honored with the first "Standing Ovation Award," designed to honor those behind the scenes who contribute so much to the theater scene. Quite rightly, she received two standing ovations before and after her acceptance speech. The glitzy affair included several performances by members of nominated productions including "The Producers," "Grey Gardens," "Hairspray," "Mame" and "The Threepenny Opera." For a complete listing of all winners, click here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The once and future queen

(Image ©cosmomovies.com)

When the news came out that legendary actress, successful business woman and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor had expired from congestive heart failure, it signaled what may have been the end of an era. At this juncture only Mickey Rooney (who also racked up at least eight marriages) still survives as the last vestige of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. The iconic beauty whose motion picture career began in 1941, was first signed to a contract at Universal Studios, but that contract was trashed by Universal Production Chief Edward Muhl who complained that despite propping from her agent Milton Selznick (producer David's brother), "She can't sing. She can't dance. She can't perform. What's more, her mother has to be one of the most unbearable women it has been my displeasure to meet." It was a short year later that she was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star for $100 per week for three months opposite Roddy McDowell in "Lassie Come Home." Other early starts included "National Velvet" in 1944, but her incredible beauty made itself evident first in "Father of the Bride" starring Spencer Tracy in 1950. By then she was a star of epic proportions and the films that became her calling cards - "BUtterfield 8," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Giant," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "A Place in the Sun" - began to be churned out by Hollywood to great fanfare from critics and movie goers alike. By the time I was old enough to know who she was, she was already on husband number four (Eddie Fisher) and I remember reading about her reaping an unprecedented salary of $1 million dollars for her work in "Cleopatra" opposite husband number five and six (Richard Burton). Even at such a tender age, I was amazed at how beautiful she was and it was the first time I had ever heard of anyone having been described as having violet eyes. Yes, truly violet eyes. They were definitely not blue and definitely not brown, but an intense light purple that almost denied adequate description. To this day I have only met one other person who had violet eyes. While her eyes may have been her most striking point, the rest of her body in her prime was almost that of a gliding goddess who had set down on earth. She was magnificent. While her career hit the skids in the last two decades, she managed to become an integral founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) after the death of her friend and former co-star Rock Hudson as well as a well-known designer of jewelry and a manufacturer of perfume. She was a bright woman whose compassion shone even during times when she was besieged by a number of health concerns or private tragedies. A winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress in "BUtterfield 8" and "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," she was a star among stars. Her passing from congestive heart failure will never diminish her legacy nor dilute her importance on the Hollywood scene. She will live on as long as we remember her and treasure that gift of her many moving and brilliant performances she has bestowed upon us and other generations of film lovers to come. Rest, sweet lady, for you have earned your peace. And we shall have you "to-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow."

Get the lead out

Daneel Playgrond looking out from the middle of the park toward St. Charles Avenue

An alarming announcement came from city officials yesterday. Not one, not two, but three different playgrounds have come under scrutiny as having had high levels of lead in the soil. This follows a similar report and closing of Markey Park in the Ninth Ward this past January. That park's soil was remediated and, after several weeks of efforts by city workers was declared safe and reopened earlier this month. The most recent announcement concerns Daneel Playground in the uptown area along historic St Charles Avenue as well as Taylor and Annunciation Playspots in Central City and the Lower Garden District respectively. These parks are considered as having the highest priority, since the levels of lead tested out much higher than most of the others. City officials have acknowledged another 10 playgrounds have tested for higher than permissible levels, but they fall short of the top three. In 2008, the last year such testing data is available, Orleans Parish children tested as having had the highest levels of lead in the blood than any other parish in the state. The shocking level of six percent announced by state officials is of particular concern because high levels of lead exposure have a direct link to delayed development, difficulties in learning and violent behavior by older children and teenagers. New Orleans neighborhoods tested for higher levels of lead exposure than permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 15 out of 46 neighborhoods. What concerns me is that Daneel Playground was the playspot where my son used to enjoy hanging out on the slides and swings. It's serene atmosphere was recently enhanced when Kaboom!, a non-profit group that specializes in upgrading existing or installing new playgrounds replaced equipment there in July of 2009. So, just how did the lead get into the soil? Scientists suggest it is an outgrowth of rampant sandblasting and the use of lead paint over many decades. Leaded gasoline, while now outlawed, might also have contributed to particulates in the air from exhausts of automobiles and fallen to the ground. It seems our children have been swimming in a virtual sea of lead toxicity right under our very noses. Why it's taken so long to discover this is a mystery. Pre-Katrina the results of testing showed Orleans Parish students as among the worst in the state. To say they were challenged by poor facilities, poor curricula and poor teachers would probably be the understatement of the year. In the post-deluvian time as charter schools have sprung up to attempt to bridge the gap in delivery of education to the children of Orleans Parish, we have seen test scores indicate a marked improvement. It is by no means perfect, but indications are that education efforts had begun to turn around a system that failed students in significant ways. Throw into the mix lead toxicity and all of the gains that have been made in the last five years could be threatened. It is expected that the three playgrounds will be fenced and signs will be posted in the coming days alerting the public to the problem. Then a mesh will be placed on the ground to seal the leaded soil and a new layer of fresh soil will be added on top of that to ensure the safety of play areas. If all goes well, the turnaround should be in six weeks or less. Thank goodness the present city administration took the initiative to investigate. The question should be posed: what was going on with the previous administrations that didn't allow such testing to take place? Why did it take so long to respond to the level of lead exposure in our greatest hope and resource for the future (our children)? Also, what can we do to ensure that we don't inadvertently expose our offspring to lead? Should we keep them indoors or is the danger inside from leaded paint even more dangerous than that found in natural environments? My child is a fully grown adult, but I feel for those parents who must now make decisions to protect their children. I pray the closure of these three parks will be the beginning of a new era of health service by city officials to protect the young rather than a way to protect investors and backers of future administrations.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The triple tragedies of Nippon

A third explosion rocks the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 14, 2011

The horrors of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan is a triple whammy from which few modern nations could ever hope to recover. But there they are again. Day after day. Night after night. The Japanese people are resolute and they are stoic. Despite the loss of power, basic necessities like food and water and the grief of losing at least ten thousand souls to the ravages of Mother Nature, the Japanese people seem unflappable. They mourn their lost family members when they find out they are, indeed, gone, but hold out interminable hope that their loved ones will turn up soon, despite all indications to the contrary. In an extraordinary fashion they wait in lines for food and medical care. There are no riots. There has been no looting. Perhaps it is because of their centuries-long isolation, but the Japanese people have demonstrated an incredible resilience and self-dependence in the face of what would certainly be considered the most stressful of times. Now on top of this already heavy burden comes more chilling news. A meltdown at not one, but several affected power plants lacking means to contain the radiation cores or to cool spent fuel rods has ramped up to a frightening real possibility of nuclear disaster. Residents within a 12-mile radius of the Fukeshima Power Plant have been evacuated and those within a 19-mile radius have been advised to stay indoors and tape shut their windows. The invisible threat of nuclear pollution stands in stark contrast to the massive 9.0 earthquake and four-story tall torrent of water unleashed on the unsuspecting countryside following that seismic event. At least that devastation could be seen and measured. The whole scale destruction is overwhelming, but the unseen menace of radioactivity is perhaps known best in Japan, the only nation to have suffered nuclear attacks on its people. Now their nation's line of defense rests with the scores of workers assigned to clean up and contain the nuclear radiation threat. If the worst nuclear accident - the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine back in 1986 - stands for anything, it should serve as a reminder of what these workers and nearby residents could be anticipating. First of all the rescue workers could be exposed to such massive amounts of radiation that their short-term health outlook could be severely impacted. The firemen who responded to the plant breakdown at Chernobyl and were credited with saving hundreds, if not thousands, of nearby residents from radiation exposure died within 30 days of their efforts and those not as severely affected found many of their ranks thinned by rampant cancer just a few years later. The workers being rushed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could be just as much at risk while attempting to keep nearby residents out of harm's way. Nuclear fallout that is spewed from the plants, carried airborne and falls to nearby fields could find its way into the food chain. Cattle who consumed such affected grass or hay in the days and months following the Chernobyl disaster produced milk with high radiation levels that spiked an increase in thyroid and other cancers in the years following the accident. Japanese residents could be put at similar risk if levels of radiation are not checked and rechecked constantly. Meanwhile efforts to find any remaining victims still goes on and the heavy task of cleanup and demolition must be conducted before rebuilding can begin. There is little time for the Japanese people to grieve for the tasks at hand are heavy and the challenges they face are daunting. Our charitable and relief efforts will help them, but there is a feeling and indications suggest they will first and foremost help themselves during this most troubling period. Aside from donations we should all offer our prayers for their immediate and long-term survival and for a lessening of this crisis.