The British stage and screen actor John Ronane (“Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Six Wives of Henry the VIII” (PBS), “Art” at the Apollo on Main Street) once remarked that people used to say they were going to “hear” a play, which when we remember that “audience” and “auditorium” are from the Latin “aud” for “listen,” is not surprising. The audience sits in the auditorium which is in a larger space; a theater, which is from the Greek for “theatron” or the “place to see.” This is all to set the table for Spike Lee’s new film, “Chi-Raq” which is a contemporary adaptation of “Lysistrata” (411 B.C.) by Aristophanes the Greek satirical playwright. Mr. Lee’s masterful adaptation combines hearing and seeing into a highly successful film that I encourage all to experience. It is now out on DVD at your local video store and also available through Netflix.
The title of Mr. Lee’s film is hip-hop for a combination of Chicago and Iraq and it also doubles for the name of his lead character; Chi-Raq (pronounced shy-rak). Mr. Lee is suggesting a similarity of rates of violence in Chicago with the war zone in the Middle East. Current statistics reinforce that comparison: there were 2,986 shootings in the Second City and almost 450 killings by guns in 2015; more than 80 percent were African-Americans and more than 90 percent male.
Aristophanes’ play, “Lysistrata” was written during the Peloponnesian War after approximately 20 years of fighting, and the play’s action is as old as the Bronze Age and the battle of the sexes. Lysisitrata convinces her female followers to go on a sex strike to get their men to end the fighting. The play has become the quintessential anti-war play and as such received many productions during the Viet Nam conflict and more recently with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Greek plays were an old type of musical theater written in verse and with a singing and dancing chorus. It is material well suited for a hip-hop adaptation, and Mr. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have created a script that combines poetic verse and the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop rap. It is a masterful piece of writing with musical numbers and funny, if vulgar, direct address by Samuel L. Jackson who serves as a narrator for the action.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, John Cusack as a Catholic priest (the role is based on the real life Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in Chicago) gives a call and response sermon over the shooting death of a child. It is a ferocious scene that achieves an operatic passion. It reminded me of a play written by Johnny B. Johnson, Jr. years ago and performed at the Friendship House on Thanksgiving night. Mr. Johnson is now an associate minister at the New Morning Star Baptist Church and scenes from his play of 30 years ago are now being revived in Spike Lee’s movie. That starts to give us all pause for just how long this gun violence has been an issue and how many mothers have cried over children in a casket.
What I find so confusing is that “Chi-Raq” was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Film yet “Mad Max: Fury Road” was. Don’t get me wrong MM:FR was lots of fun and technically superb, but it is all physical action with hardly any plot or character development. It could be summarized as the best chase movie ever in which the heroes drive and fight out into the middle of a desert then turn around and drive and fight their way back defeating the villain in the process, liberating the poor town folk and then the hero walks alone into the sunset.
I could see an award for best action, but best movie? Well that is a stretch. Likewise I am baffled by the nomination of the new Star Wars for best movie honors. I found it dull and boring without any excitement at all. The Disney Company, known in some circles as “da mouse” paid a couple billion for the franchise and have given us a not very satisfying trip down memory lane with not very good 3-D effects at that. These two bloated studio offerings have been nominated and “Chi-Raq” was not; leading to the backlash of “Oscars so white” and Spike Lee has announced he will not attend even though he will be given a lifetime achievement award.
Mr. Lee’s film is brilliant, if uneven, and deserves our attention and recognition. Remember the great slugger Babe Ruth had a lifetime average of .342 and like the Babe, Mr. Lee is swinging for the fences with “Chi-Raq.” He hit enough out of the park to merit a nomination.
Director Paul Gordon staged John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” with a light touch for the Corn Stock Theatre Winter Playhouse. The Depression era tale makes a good argument for support of social spending for mentally/physically disabled people when the Asperger Syndrome character, Lennie, well played by Chris Peterlin, murders an innocent while all the other characters are busy playing horseshoes. Although the playwright makes it clear through repetitious exposition and foreshadowing that Lennie’s minder and friend, George, knows that Lennie is dangerous; still it is impossible to be with him 24/7 and it is just a question of time before someone gets hurt. There are bruised and battered families today who face the decision of institutionalizing their adult children when at the same time they fear for the quality of care those loved ones may receive.