My Books, Banned and Burned: A Dramaworks Production

(From left to right) Richie Lester, Nanique Gheridian, and Dan Leonard pose for the camera after performing in the Dramaworks production of "My Books, Banned and Burned."

(From left to right) Richie Lester, Nanique Gheridian, and Dan Leonard pose for the camera after performing in the Dramaworks production of “My Books, Banned and Burned”

The topic of censorship took center stage last Wednesday at the Mandel Public Library when actors from Palm Beach Dramaworks performed a show titled My Books, Banned and Burned.  The three Dramaworks players portrayed authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller and others whose writings were targeted as threats to the Nazi Germany society and ordered to be burned.  Anyone who has ever studied this period of history will recall the famous pictures of German university students tossing banned books into bonfires; the singed prose rising from off the pages in a self righteous stench toward the heavens.  The damned authors of the Nazi persecution were given a voice through Nanique Gheridian, Dan Leonard and Richie Lester’s reading of writer Mark Lynch’s script, and we in the audience were moved by the conviction and fierce determination to defend free speech denoted in the actors’ delivery.

A mural at the Banned and Burned: Literary Censorship and the Loss of Freedom Exhibit with a picture of books being burned in Nazi Germany

A mural at the Banned and Burned: Literary Censorship and the Loss of Freedom Exhibit with a picture of books being burned in Nazi Germany

The three-person drama explored not only how fascism can present a danger to free speech, but also fundamentalism.  Half-way through the performance, the setting switches to the Southern United States where a Christian church has also planned a public book burning.  It seems that the pastor of this church believes that he has the authority to burn J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books based on scriptures found in the Bible, specifically in Acts 19:19: “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”

During this segment of the performance, I began to retrospectively contemplate my experience growing up in the Pentecostal faith.  We were discouraged to read anything outside of the King James Version of the Bible.  Many activities were banned in our church like listening to secular music, going to movie theaters, watching certain cartoons, and reading books that conflicted with the church dogma.  Later in life, as an adult, I wrestled with the faith of my youth, going back and forth, trying to decide what a sin was and what was not.  At one point, I threw away books and vinyl records that I believed were sinful.  Then years later, I renounced my faith and threw away my bible, only to years later after that, reverse my actions once again, and virtually read the Bible from cover to cover.  But one thing remained true, as the actors in this performance underscored, you can destroy books but you cannot kill ideas.  I found that to be very profound.

A poster displayed at the entrance of "My Books, Banned and Burned"

A poster displayed at the entrance of “My Books, Banned and Burned”

The German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine summed it up best by saying, “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”  As an American living in the 21st century, it frightens me to think of living back in a time when books and people were burned because of conflicts in ideology, racism, extreme nationalism and fundamentalist religion.  Yet, it is still happening in our lifetime.  In Mali, extremism at the hands of Al-Qaeda has banned the beautiful musical and cultural traditions that were once world renown.  In fact, they have even destroyed historic ancient shrines in Timbuktu.  If we are to protect free speech, then we must speak up whenever injustice poses a threat to our ability to express ourselves with words.   My Books, Banned and Burned does just that, with a bit of pizzazz for a subject that too often is regrettably ignored.

A mural at the Banned and Burned: Literary Censorship and the Loss of Freedom Exhibit with a quote from Heinrich Heine

A mural at the Banned and Burned: Literary Censorship and the Loss of Freedom Exhibit with a quote from Heinrich Heine

© 2013

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Rock Bottom Burlesque: Striptease, Fire Dancing and More!

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever burlesque show.  To be honest, other than striptease, I have to admit that I knew nothing about burlesque.  I’ve been to my fair share of gentlemen’s clubs over the years and seen everything from exotic dancers putting on shows in the shower to the “hush-hush” of the VIP rooms.  And yet nothing I’ve ever experienced at Rachel’s compares to the level of artistry combined with sensuality that I witnessed watching the Rock Bottom Burlesque troupe perform their show called Swamp Town.

In order to fully appreciate Swamp Town, I decided to go online and research the history of burlesque.  I didn’t want to be the guy in the crowd who only showed up to see beautiful girls dancing in revealing costumes and sticking out like some sore thumb pervert.  In my crash course on this art form, I learned that burlesque involves many things including, but not limited to: music, theater, literature, dance, humor, political satire, puppets and yes, of course, striptease!  No longer could I reduce burlesque to just corset skirts, lingerie and bordello shoes (although I was pleased as punch to see them…don’t get me wrong, I am a man after all) because, as I found out, burlesque has a rich history and tradition going  all the way back to the 17th century.

Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Swamp Town is a story about a rural community facing impending dangers which include greedy real estate business men hell-bent on development and commercialization, encroaching winds and water from hurricanes, trigger happy law enforcement, and the dreaded alligators which have been banned from Swamp Town, as can be seen by the sign that welcomes visitors: No Gators Permitted!  The show begins with a trio of musicians; a banjo player, guitar player and washtub bass player who offer Bluegrass and Folk renditions of songs in between acts which include classic tunes like Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher.  As the drama ensues, we meet church ladies on porches, drunkards in bars, a fire dancer, cryptic oracles predicting storms, bible toting preachers and lovelies baring it all –  well not really because pasties were used, sorry guys!

By the time of the curtain call when the show ended, I felt really appreciative of having been invited out to watch Swamp Town.  The rest of the crowd shared my sentiments, evidenced by the applause.  Suddenly all the books I had read in the past of my favorite actors and musicians who performed Vaudeville and on the Chitlin’ Circuit flooded my mind, and I realized that I had just witnessed a very unique show that came out of that same tradition.  The music of Swamp Town kept my head nodding and foot tapping to its energetic beat and the actors made me laugh out loud from beginning to end.  The creativity of the set and costumes took us back in time to the early 1900’s where the play is set, and the dialogue was engaging; often prompting people in the audience to yell out at the players which allowed the members of the troupe to display their sharp improvisational skills.  And I’m happy to report that no gators followed me home; only fond memories to last a lifetime.

From left to right: Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Bear on banjo and actor Tuesday Lee Afton

© 2011