Sunday, May 6, 2007

Weick in Marx in Soho at Vox Pop in Brooklyn

That's a lot of nesting up there; but this is a Parrot's hangout after all!

Speaking of hangouts, where might a couple of feathered friends bide their time on a Saturday night (or just about any other) without straying too far from the nest? The local Dunkin Donuts? Unfortunately, in this neck of the woods, in can come to that. You see, this is the heart of Multicultural Brooklyn, where speaking Parrotese does not necessarily put you in the minority. Indeed, most businesses around here shut up as tight as a vulture's... err... grip, come sundown on Friday, and stay that way until pretty late Saturday night at the earliest. Though the Parrot shares some DNA with these folks, we do not appreciate the Friday/Sat night morgue routine (we could always touch down in Greenwood Cemetery if we were into that), so we are apt to take wing and find more welcoming venues.

And venue is just what we find when we drop in to Vox Pop, the only place this side of Park Slope that qualifies as a genuine Coffeehouse. Only this is not your run-of-the-mill yuppie joint with the $2.50 cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Well, okay - I guess it is about that much for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. That's the funny thing about Vox Pop, the name of which is short for "vox populi", the Voice of the People. I know, it sounds like a leftie tabloid from the '30's (or '60's). Which is, roughly what it is - updated a bit. The place was started a couple of years ago by Sander Hicks and some friends, though Sander is definitely the main presence there. Nothing if not a risk taker, Sander took over a small storefront on Cortelyou Road, a commercial strip that had all but faded into oblivion; where the one bookstore in the entire neighborhood could not make it, where you could count at one point 12 hair salons, 4 dry cleaners, and not one restaurant you'd want to stick your beak into. Now, I don't want to use a hysterical term like "renaissance", but there has been a noticeable pickup of commercial activity on this strip, which sits smack in the middle of a neighborhood full of expensive Victorian homes and not a few large apartment buildings. You'd think somebody would figure out that this is a potential goldmine - at least, it would be, if there were enough going on there to deter the locals from heading to Park Slope every time they need a toy for their kids or a Fine Dining Experience.

If it is headed towards "renaiassance" (or, ironically, gentrification), Vox Pop will have had a lot to do with it. To start with, they did an amazing, and amazingly quick, job of turning the space into a warm, welcoming little java joint - not crowded or cramped but a real homey feel, helped along by lots of natural wood grains. Kids dig Vox Pop (there's a play area); so do adults. So do parrots. But this is not yer ordinary Starbucks wannabe. They sell books, which seem to have 2 main themes: radical rock music, and radical politics. They have readings (by, you guessed it, radical writers), and they do self-publishing. They have music in the evenings, not all radical, but much of it inspired by either the Clash or Pete Seeger, depending on which night you happen to walk in. And they sell food. None of it cheap. They do have "free wifi" - the scare quotes indicating that "free" is to be interpreted here as meaning "please spend $6 an hour or else..." Or else what? Who knows, I guess you become a Vox Populi Persona Non Grata, at least if you speak Latin. The Open Mike is also free, but the 2 beers to cover the minimum will cost you $10. (Pay to Play, is that what it's called?) Well, let's put it this way - if you are already one of the converted, consider it a contribution, to whatever cause Sander happens to be promoting at the moment. And if you are not, I don't think you could stand the heat for very long. The Parrot long thought he was redder than a scarlet tanager, but at Vox Pop we have to perch in the loft to avoid getting into a harangue with some "9/11 Truth" type (a cause Sander actively promotes), or someone who wants Ralph Nader to run again. All the same, better this than listening to the discourse on the other side of the fence. (Question regarding evolution and Sam Brownback: does the evidence suggest that he more likely evolved from Neanderthals or Cretins? Could it be his ancestors were the evolutionary fork that leads to both? This would explain his position on Darwinism.)

So where was I? Vox Pop, the radical coffeehouse that is going to revive Cortelyou Road, expand into all major U.S cities within two years, and capture 10% of the multibillion dollar coffee market by selling Fair Trade coffee and locally brewed beer... Or not, but I am damn glad they started here. And one of the latest reasons I'm glad - I was starting to talk about what I did last Saturday night, wasn't I? - is Marx in Soho, the one-man, one-act play by Howard (A People's History of the United States) ZInn. Incidentally, he's the guy who wrote A People's History of the United States. Like Vox Pop, Zinn dared to tread where few had gone before, writing a lengthy, detailed account of U.S. history as seen not from the vantage point of the elite few who directed the show but the dispossessed, disenfranchised many who actually (come to think of it) built this country. And interestingly enough, he also wrote some plays, including this one. It has not been produced very often, at least until Robert Weick took it upon himself to learn the demanding solo part and promote the show to college campuses, small theatres, and radical coffeehouses like Vox Pop (possibly a class of one).

So what is it? Alright, I'm going to tell you, but you have to promise one thing - you won't like tune out, log off,
turn on the parrot filter, etc., until you give the idea a chance. Okay, ready? Here it is: Marx comes back from the dead to deliver a critique of contemporary Western society. All right, are you still with me? Good, because it's not quite like what it sounds. A little, but not cloyingly so. Marx comes back, for sure, granted a one hour reprieve by the Opiate of the People (Opius Populi?). And he does give us plenty of reason to believe that were he alive today he would bore us with what we already know if we are not comatose, that profits mean more than people under capitalism, that the Imperialist West supports its standard of living with wars to keep the Oppressed Nations down, that we stole half the country from Mexico, that America was built by immigrant labor who we repay with racism and immigration quotas, and other true clichés. (Dear Mr. Sarkozy, friend of the U.S., enemy of all that post-colonial riffraff that is filtering into your country, please focus on the "true" (vrai)", not the "cliché (cliché)".) But luckily for us, and for the possibility of this play getting performed without coming off preachier than an Easter sermon by Cardinal Egan, this is not what Mr. Weick spends the hour or so talking about.

In fact. Marx seems to have more to say about his boils than about politics, and even more to say about his wife Jenny and their daughters (mainly Elizabeth, though I think he had about 11 in all) than about his boils. He spends several amusing minutes discussing the slovenly persona of Mikhail Bakunin, the Godfather (ooh, would he hate that!) of anarchism. And he talks about the Paris Commune in terms that still manage to be moving 135 years later. There is a lot of history going on, good for the classroom crowd - especially today, when you can't assume that the average, educated 19 year old has the faintest idea what Marxism, communism, socialism, or just about anything else (other than iPodism) means. Marx of course decries the distortion of his views in the hands of the Soviet regime. He lambasts Stalinism (not necessarily by name) and declares (as did the historical Marx) that "I am not a Marxist" (though I can't say that Zinn's script brings out the meaning of this utterance very clearly).

In the end one is glad to have happened to be in Soho (sort of) when Marx dropped in. The performance alone was well worth the price of admission, which included, for $23, a politically correct burger, a small salad, and a damn good pint of some dark amber Dogfish Ale, which I must admit may have enhanced the play without any extra work on Zinn's or Weick's part. Typical Vox Popitis - Sander managed to get an article about the event published in the Times, emailed his constituency, and then had a line of patrons waiting for that PC burger, forcing them to start the play about 40 minutes late. When I came to buy a ticket a few days earlier the only staff person at the store had no idea there was a play, how to buy a ticket for it, how to handle the various discounts, or what the price of coffee is in Nicaragua. (Okay, I didn't ask that - maybe she did know.) Considering they run a printing press and have done performances before I thought it was a little odd that they didn't just print up some tickets. Oh well, organizing the revo takes a lot of energy; ditto organizing to become the third biggest brewed coffee retailer in the U.S. Anyway, what do I care - I'd ten times rather have Vox Pop with all their little quirks and growing pains that Barstucks with their dirty bathrooms and overpriced pastries. More than that, it is the fact that they never uses their spaces, of which they have sometimes three or four within a few blocks, for anything like a musical presentation or a reading or just about anything other than pulling in every possible yuppie, not to mention the occasional emerald-plumed biped in search of an oatmeal cracker. Suggested corporate slogan: "Not A Coffeehouse (Just a "
¢offee Hou$e)". Vox Pop fills a cultural vacuum created by the demise of the coffeehouse, be it a folk club, a chess bar or a poetry salon. They've become a neighborhood cultural institution in a little over a year, and I daresay it is awfully refreshing to sometimes find oneself politically to the right of a small business owner. It ain't no Utopia, or they'd give me that pot of fresh brewed tea for being a nice guy. But it's way cool, I mean awesome, groovy, whatever.

Now, to get back to the Marx-Zinn-Weick connection, though the play was definitely entertaining, and Weick's performance top notch, there were things I missed. In the brief discussion session afterward, my question was: when do we get the second act, in which he tells us how socialism is really supposed to work? Aside from that, I was kind of surprised that the only references to 20th century socialism were some digs at the easiest target, the Soviet empire. What about China, Cuba, or Yugoslavia? What about Chile under Allende, Grenada under Bishop, the Prague Spring - are there no models worth praising? If not, then that is a bigger problem for Marx than boils or Bakunin: it's like, you all screwed up, if you had only done it the way I said... And what way is that? Zinn's Marx tells us very little about socialism "as it was supposed to be", actually. You would think this Marx would have a thing or two to say about his vision, even if it were straight out of what the historical Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Programme and a few other works. Because it is fine and dandy to say, "You see, capitalism still stinks!", but if every attempt to institute socialism since the Paris Commune stinks too, you need a little more than that or you're just getting a stream of hot air. Which is fine for a parrot, but the flight-challenged spectator might not be so thrilled.

I'm dead serious (so is Marx, for that matter, but nevermind) - I think Zinn should write a second act. The play is far from losing our attention by the end, at least with Weick's capable handling of the part. And now that he's memorized all that.... a second act, in which we actually get a sense of the man's vision, seems like it's waiting to be written. Aside from that, I was a little surprised that this Marx,
who shows up clutching a wad of contemporary newspapers, has so very little to say about contemporary social problems. Other than one or two passing gestures about the environment there is nothing about this most urgent of political issues. What would Marx think of a European Union? Computers? The Internet? Okay, maybe it is safer not to weigh him down with ad hoc advice on every issue under the sun. And the focus on his own time and immediate surroundings seemed appropriate. As a historical play with a few passes at contemporary updating, it works fine. Be that as it may, having gone this far, I would have donned my Dialectical Materialism Thinking Cap and given my audience a more robust sense of the man's continued relevance.

But all of our Avian Advice aside, this was a surprisingly enjoyable theatrical experience, supported by an excellent one-man perofrmance and I'm guessing a wee bit more than a pint of Dogfish Ale. And now that we know about the ale, the old Wingtipped Minstrel just might pop in to the Open Mike pretty soon. Better plan to walk home, can't afford to get points on my flying license.


Joe said...

As a fellow Flatbusher, I enjoyed your description of the VoxPop scene. This 9/11 Truth business is so bizarre...Reminds me of that street scene from the "Protocols of Zion" documentary where some sage claims NY is controlled by Jews, including Bloomberg and Giuliani. "Giuliani wasn't Jewish," corrects the documentarian. "Yes he was - think about it - JEW liani."

sanderhicks said...

monk, great writing. hit the open mike! this piece is a great portrait.

joe, CIA created Al Qaeda, read your history. It's blurred, and it's suppressed, but it's out there. The truth will set us all free.