In Memory of a Student

Many regular readers of this blog have noticed a profusion of comments coming in from students — wonderful interns on Capital Hill here in DC for the semester from University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and from University of California at Berkeley and Merced. In past semesters, students have kept up journal entries on plays they’ve seen or read. Last semester, they posted their discussions on a Google Groups bulletin board. The comments were so interesting, I thought they deserved to be shared with our general Theater J blog readers, and so we have. And this week’s entries on PHOTOGRAPH 51 (see the post before this one) are uniformly wonderful.

This weekend, alas, brought some terribly tragic news. One of our more affable and engaging students from last semester, James Bernardi, died in a car crash outside of Ann Arbor. The newspaper report is below.

James was incredibly outgoing, charismatic and street-smart, soulful, sincere, self-effacing and a bit of a suave-operator at one and the same time. We wasn’t the best writer in the class, but he was the most appreciative theater-goer I’ve ever taught. He came to the theater-going experience as a blank-slate; it was all so new to him. And it turned out that he loved what he was learning; he loved the discourse with classmates. He aspired to be a cultured and knowledgeable young man and he was upgrading his appearance, his sartorial choices, and his diction as the semester went on. Early in the fall, he presented himself as something of a cousin to Marshall Mathers — the eminent Eminem — a polite white streetwise hipster rapper — but he sought to change that affect, and refine his demeanor, as the semester went on.

I’ve gone through some of James’ postings, and his two papers, and want to leave these with the world — published writings from one of the most kind-hearted, deeply appreciative young theater-goers I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. Poor James. And his terribly sad and grief-stricken family. I feel for them. And for all his friends.

PLYMOUTH TOWNSHIP

Michigan State Police released the name of a 24-year-old killed in a rollover accident Sunday in Plymouth Township.
James Bernardi of Plymouth was ejected from a 2005 Pontiac Bonneville headed west on M-14 near North Sheldon Road about 2:45 a.m., police said.
Police said alcohol appears to be a contributing factor in the crash.
The driver, Robert Owens, 23, also of Plymouth, was taken to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti after the accident and has been released.

Here are some of James’ entries over the course of the fall, 2010…

* * *

Dear Inspirational Colleagues,

Superior Donuts was truly inspirational and captivating, a play in
which altered my sense of worth after the lights went out. I
understand that my peers have already stated that Superior Donuts was
and is the play that they and I will remember for a lifetime. But I
must say that this play was incredible, the best play so far this
semester hands down.

Its quant and petite theater only increases the theatrical
performances ability to allow the audience to feel a part of the
character reinvention. The performance was real authentic and
spellbinding. As Brad Wiley stated “Sure, a few lines were botched,
the lady cop came on a little strong at times, and the Russian accents
were pretty off.” I feel like this notion actually added to the
authenticity of the play, it made the performance more realistic only
because I know when people speak even today sometimes they fumble on
words too. I loved the struggles that this play shed light on. Not
just the ones between the characters but with society and the constant
shifting of norms relevant to each character’s lives, from Star Trek
conventions to alcohol abuse.

This play is also a flawless representation of the “Wars at Home”
theme of the second half of this semester. It shed light on the
growing momentum of corporatism and racism to poverty and crime. This
play was a melting pot of social issues that threaten the safety and
fiscal sustainability of many American small business owners. Superior
Donuts
does an amazing and tasteful job of demonstrating how today the
mom and pop shops around every counter are filing chapter 11 because of
the unbeatable low prices and multimillion dollar ad campaigns
financed corporate America. Superior Donuts was a taste display of
many of the relevant issues that America faces today. I loved every
minute of the play and would suggest to anyone who want a culture
shock in a comedic way.

* * *

In response to a rough review of a play posted by a classmate, James response was humane. First the student (Edward) wrote:

If I could give this play a letter grade I would give it a D-, no problem. This play was horrendous. I would never have paid money to see such an atrocious play. I don’t know why the actors signed up for such a twisted script. They must have been hard up for money at the time to agree to take part. I also can’t fathom the reasons as to why there were so many people at the performance that went to see this play out of their own free will. This play left a real bad taste in my mouth for a variety of different reasons. I felt the plot was weak, the story was gross and twisted, and the set design was very simple/
silly. In my opinion the acting was also not very good. What the hell
was going on this play?

Edward My Good Man,
I understand that you may have been anticipating a thrilling epic that
solved the murder mystery with a light and possibly comedic script.
I’m sorry to disappoint you bud, but this play was intrinsically more
thought provoking then a merely a play that was just humorous and
about solving the mystery of the JonBenet murder. House of Gold did
erect a emotional response, a negative one, but emotional nonetheless.

This play could have been about how one ought to preserve the
notion that society at times can be sick, demented and cruel. This
play sheds light on the fact that we live in a society where danger
could be lurking around every corner but it is up to us to stand
before the fear and look deep into the eyes of evil and shout I AM NOT
AFRAID.

Edward, life is not always going to be full of pink roses and
beautiful sunsets, as I am sure you are aware of given your course of
actions this weekend. There are going to be times when we see how
society is based on the horrendous actions of others. My good man,
there is hope however; the hope lye in our ability to understand and
learn what this play is trying to show us. It showed us that
materialism and some western ideals can break the solidarity of a
marriage and even a child’s spirit. It is up to you and I (us) to
break the mold and embrace those who are different, those who have
differing ideals as colleagues with similar interests, interests that
include teaching our child and ourselves about the essence of
community. We can be one again American we just need to accept our
differing neighbor as another brick in the American structure of
community.

* * *
from his mid-term paper:

We were honored this semester to have Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a well respected expert in the field of foreign policy relating the Afghan region. During his commentary and short clip of Wazericstand [sic] to Washington he illuminated many facts that compare with absolute certainly with the Great Game, Homebody Kabul, Something you did and Scorched. It should be understood that it is up to us as future leaders of America to use our tenacious abilities to employ our idealistic sense of democracy in nations that are fractured by radical fundamentalism. In each play there are instances where we can see that there is an opportunity for peace but we must employ principles that reflect a coherent sense of conflict resolution.

Akbar Ahmed advanced several suggestions America should consider when attempting to resolve the conflicts abroad. Specifically, he stated that we need to make unilateral efforts to embrace the culture and norms of the tribal leaders as representatives of a community and not as barriers that need to be removed but the key holders of negotiation. This suggestion in itself offered the highest degree of separation when comparing to the other theatrical performances. I could see that Akbar was proving the notionthat there is disconnectedness between tribal leaders and western Democracies. Also, if we wish to gain the respect and confidence of the leaders we as Americans need to throw away the preconceived notions that these tribal leaders are not in control of their community. These leaders have an obligation to pass policies that reflect a benefit to their people and they are not obligated to adhere to the requests made by western democracies. We need to communicate with these tribal leaders democratically not militaristically. This idea was a theme that I thought compared vividly to the Great Game when the female CIA operative was talking to the Afghani in secret. Akbar Ahmed stated that Western democratic nations are disconnected from the people of Afghanistan. These facts were illuminated in the great game during the scenes where we saw the farming family talking to the British man attempting to recruit the farmer’s daughter into a women’s school. The disconnectedness is proven when we understood that fact that these farming families need their children to tend to their crops and there is not value that education brings to the family. There is no worth in school, it does not put food on the table it just increases the workload for the family.

During this semester we were assigned the task of ready Tony Kushners’ Homebody Kabul. The book evolved into an enlightening adventurous epic that ended up being not a task at all. This screen play was a spellbinding classic that I could not put down. It accurately depicted how many women are oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism. One of the themes that I felt was important in Homebody Kabul revolved around the idea of a British women’s obsession with a guidebook that ended up killing and trying so hard to retrieve the body. It was the home body’s obsession with escaping her mundane and boring life that in the end was the epitome of her demise and the family’s journey to claim the body and the trials and tribulations that can with it. Personally, I felt the comparisons that this screenplay had with the theatrical performance we saw so far this semester were the portrayals of womens’ suffrage in Islamic states where echoed in both Scorched and The Great Game. The comparisons are evident when referring back to the scene In Scorched when Nawal had her child ripped from her arm. Also consider the scene when she was in prison and was rapped by a prison guard a fate that many women at the time had. These scenes point to some or the many similarities Homebody Kabul had with the plays we have seen this semester. However, Homebody has a few contrasting themes that should be addressed. Throughout Homebody Kabul there are so many instances where I could feel what it is was like to be an Afghan citizen. I could feel the terror, addiction and restrain that were portrayed in the screenplay. I couldn’t really feel or even begin to feel the pains that relate to living in these places when wars and Islamic domination hiders one’s liberties in the theatrical performances. I felt connected to the family and the Homebody more than in any of the performances only because when reading this screenplay I could pick up on the detail of ones personality profoundly.

In retrospect, If we want to live in a world where every women has a voice, peace and harmony is an international priority then we need to restructure how we communicate with other leader and embrace their culture not denounce it. The theatrical performances that we have attended thus far this semester have eluded me to some striking similarities and paradigms that are attached to the wars abroad and how we can solve the conflicts of today and tomorrow. I feel if addressed appropriately we can accurately inform our citizens that foreign policy and increasing human rights awareness on a global level is not as simple as the media likes to portray it as. More Americans need to be reminded that there is a world that thrives outside our borders and that wars can create so much hatred, we need to consider this idea before we have a foreign policy that inappropriately extends our reach into other nations.

* * *
I’ll never forget James’ falling in love with Ford’s Theatre and its production of SABRINA FAIR. James identified with the rogue at the center, I think.

“Sabrina Fair” was a rich, elegant and engaging play; the elegance was compounded by the set designer’s ability to flawlessly recreate what a home in the Hamptons looked like during the 1950s. The stage was beautifully designed; the open house set was contrasted by the Lincoln box as if it was part of the set. With a view from the balcony the entire set could be seen. The vines growing on the Greco-roman architecture enhanced that authenticity of the set design. The set designer’s ability to engage the audience with such authenticity allowed me to feel like I was actually a part of the epic.

I thought that Sabrina Fair, written by Samuel A. Taylor was an incredible tail about how two people could fall in love with one another even when they were members of two different socio-economic classes. I saw this story as a sign that riding our society of class divisions we can live in a place where community connectedness can be achieved. I saw that social progressiveness can be achieved if we embrace mutually beneficial relationships with all people from all walks of life. Sabrina Fair was a story about a vibrant, young women’s endeavor to find her new self through her ambition to see the world. Once returning from a five year work abroad program in Paris, Sabrina finds herself stuck in a web of hardships. Returning to America as a mature beautiful woman, Linus who is her father’s employer’s son is interested and taken back by her beauty and independence. The obvious socio-economic difference labels Sabrina as an insufficient mate for both the Larrebee sons, initially. The inherent class differences actually hinder the relationship from flourishing in the beginning. I really felt that Linus was not bothered by the class difference but it was Linus’s father who had the real contention with any sort of relationship procuring. This notion was emphasized by Mr. Larrebee’s reaction to David’s request to wed Sabrina. These scene inclined me to believe that class discrimination is detrimental to relationship building and social progressiveness altogether.

In the scene where Sabrina falls and scrapes her leg, is where I think Linus shows his true feelings for her and convinces me he that he doesn’t really care that she is not of the same socio-economic class. It was evident how Linus truly felt about Sabrina by the way he gently helps her up and is so quick to relieve her of any pain. It was at this moment that I felt that class divisions were meaningless in the eyes of Linus. Linus saw Sabrina as a way to end his fear of commitment. She was the missing piece of his puzzle. It was Sabrina’s energy and lust to see the world that Linus was so attracted to. Sabrina saw Linus as a suitable and mate because he offered her security. By security I mean Linus’s ability to make Sabrina feel comfortable, special and confident that they would have a fruitful relationship. It is through their connection that they are able to create a mutually relationship that does not look a class but rather love.

Both Sabrina and Linus played off of each other’s positive attributes and filled in their character defeats with each other. While in the end we saw how Sabrina was actually an heir to a fortune. This notion proved to be the point in which the two people actually unified into one. Now at the same time, this goes to show that class divisions were still being reinforced. If Sabrina was not an heiress to a fortune, I feel then the relationship probably would of never of materialized. The focus needs to be placed on the fact that through their differences they did unify, it was their insecurities that brought them together. Sabrina Fair in many ways, I feel was about how relationships in American can develop into something incredible. Here, the two parties that are different on the outside actually benefit from each other’s character assets. The one thing that I took away from this play that is relevant in today’s society was the fact that class divisions do still exist and hider our country’s growth. Mutually beneficial relationships can evolve between individuals in the working or upper class. As we witnessed in the Sabrina Fair staying open to such a relationship can bring about great achievements in a society. Currently, class discrimination much like the discrimination that we saw in this play still threatens social progressiveness all together. People and institutions need to be made aware of it if we wish to have a functioning society in the future.

* * *

From: “James B.”

Date: Tue, 2 Nov 2010 08:20:32 -0700 (PDT)
Local: Tues, Nov 2 2010 10:20 am
Subject: Perceiving “Hair”

The theatrical performance that transpired over the weekend
drastically changed my perception of what entertainment really is and
how it can be perceived in many different ways depending on a number
of different factors. People from every corner of the country convened
at the Kennedy Center this past Thursday to gaze upon a timeless
classic. It is safe to say that the majority of these theater goers
grew up during the time when this play took place, a time where
unprotected sex, drugs and rock and roll ran rapid. It was also a time
where our nation was divided just as we are divided today. There was a
huge generational gap between the self proclaimed anti-establishment
“hippies” and their run of the mill working class parents. This gap
was one of the main precursors that channeled the division between the
two groups. The younger more “peaceful” group wanted to end the war in
Vietnam and live instantly gratifying lives while the other group
wanted their children to be proud of their country and work hard, pay
their taxes and be American. This was a time of transition for young
Americans, a time where people were not only battling the government
for civil rights and equal representation but fighting the
establishment in itself. Burning your draft card was a symbolic
representation of vindicating yourself as individual and not being a
part of the American regime.

I do understand that many of my peers felt that this play did not
adhere to our tastes and preferences regarding entertainment but I
think our perspective of this era inhibits our ability to find it
entertaining. To some and you (and myself) there were instances where
one could be offended by the rhetoric that the play contained.
However, when I was looking at this first couple of rows off of the
stage all I saw was grey hair or no hair at all. This lead me to
believe that the majority of the people who went to this play probably
grew up during this time and that could play a key role in how they
perceive the plays true intentions. The point I’m trying to emphasis
is not that I did find the play entertaining but rather that if we
adapt to the 40 something year generational gap we may be able to
position ourselves to be a bit more entertained and embrace that fact
that even then people were still striving for peace and justice just
as some people are today.

* * *

And finally, his last entry, upon seeing the HIDE/SEEK exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery:

Dear Fellows,
This particular piece really touched me in a way that none of the
other theatrical performances could. “Fire in My Belly” by David
Wojnarowitz evoked an emotional response that was disturbing yet
intriguing. The music alone, made me uneasy and actually distracted me
from understanding the true meaning of the art work. The music in the
clips was increasingly creepy, haunting and disruptive. I think the
producers intention of using this type of music was to convey a notion
of seriousness or possibly to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. At
the same time, I was intrigued by the producer’s use of flashing
lights and cinematography when transitioning between scenes. This
enticed me to constantly watch to video anticipating another scene
that could evoke another type of emotional response all together.
Maybe watching this piece was a guilty pleasure in the sense that it
was fearfully constructed and unpredictable.

Then I saw the ants crawling all over the cross, here is when my
emotional response turned toward a negative emotional response
totally. I couldn’t help but be offended by the portrayal of Jesus
being so human and helpless. This I felt was not a flattering
depiction the religious figure

This work was striped from the national portrait gallery due to its
inherent anti- religious/Christian interpretations. Republican
Congressional House Speaker, John Boehner commented on the work as
representing “hate speech” like principles. This notion is not
surprising at given that are 112th congress in predominately
republicans and religious conservatives. I felt that one of the
reasons why this work was stripped from the lime light was because the
religiously conservative political actors are unable to look at this
work abstractly. Maybe the producers are trying to convey the Jesus is
with even as we descend into the depths of earth.

Everyone should have a voice in American, especially when it comes to
expressing their voice through art. The real question is when does
artistic expressionism cross the line? When does one expressing his or
her views and through art impede on the religious view of citizens in
an inappropriately?

* * *

Appropriate to end with a question. Why? What’s the meaning? How fast is too fast?

James will be missed. Very much.

3 thoughts on “In Memory of a Student

  1. I cannot thank you enough for this tribute. I was lucky to have James in three different humanities courses and enjoy his energy and contributions for over a year. His writing brought him back to life for me – if only for a moment.

  2. A very special sharing. As is too often the case, we learn about someone we’d like to have known only when the opportunity to know him or her has been lost. May his memory be for a blessing.

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