Entry begun at home, Monday, October 13, 7:25 am
Last week was an exciting week for Moby-Dick as well as for Douglass. Getting our sample copies of the Moby catalog, Fast Fish & Loose Fish, was a real treat. Emma Rose and I have not had a chance to examine it closely together yet, but during the fifteen minutes on my front porch when she brought my copy to me on Wednesday night, we knew this publication was going to turn out very well. Blurb bound it beautifully, the colors are vivid and true, and Emma Rose’s layout looks just right on the actual printed page. By the time I left for the Conference last Thursday, I had emailed each student artist an electronic copy of the pages devoted to his or her work so that we can have their input or corrections by the time we make our final edits and place the bulk order for 101 copies we will need to keep the price per copy a little lower. Today we are having a lunch to celebrate this major step in the project, after which we will meet with an administrator who may have some ideas as to where we can apply for help with publication costs.
At lunch we will also celebrate Emma Rose’s first publication, the “Afterword” she wrote to my essay in the collection Moby-Dick: Critical Insights, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by the Salem Press division of Grey House Publishing. This was a very efficient publication by academic standards; we had written our essay and afterword in the spring and already we each received our copy of the published book last week. It will be a perfect complement to our Moby-Dick exhibition and catalog because my essay and her afterword both address what the title of my essay describes as “Teaching Melville and the Arts to Creative Students in a New Century.” I am delighted that our joint essay concludes the volume, so that Emma Rose, a college undergraduate in our new century, has the last word. As Bob Evans writes in the introduction to the volume, this collection “ends, appropriately, with a focus on the future of Moby-Dick studies and on future students of Moby-Dick.” I had chosen our local Bob Evans restaurant as the site for our celebratory lunch today without realizing, until Emma Rose pointed it out, that it shares the name of our editor.
Last week also featured two major developments involving the Moby-Dick exhibition and related events in April. One came in a phone conversation with Gary Pilkington confirming that the Kenton County Public Library will be able to host our exhibition Moby Comes to Covington in April and May–as well as the Moby-Dick Marathon on April 25 and 26 and the reception the following day. Their exhibition space, spread over three floors, will be the perfect venue for the variety and volume of Moby art we plan to show. The large meeting room will be perfect for the Marathon Reading of the novel. Emma Rose and I will be meeting with Gary toward the end of the month to start working out the logistics. Because they have up-to-date video monitors, we will definitely be able to show the video art as well as the 2D and 3D works our students have created. These include Ellen Hill’s thirteen-minute stop-frame animation film Moby Dick Untold, imagining the life of the white whale before, as well as after, he was attacked by Ahab. Her work will be very popular with children in the library as well as adults who attend our events.
Our other good news on the program front came from Mark Niekurk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU. He confirmed that the Cincinnati Art Museum has agreed to host the kick-off event for our Moby weekend in April. Our panel discussion on Moby-Dick in the Twenty-First Century will be held in the Museum’s auditorium on the evening of Friday, April 24. The museum will remain open that night so that our guests can visit its galleries too. The plan right now is for a 90-minute session featuring four panelists: Elizabeth Schultz, author of Unpaitned to the Last; Samuel Otter, editor of Leviathan; Matt Kish, artist and author of Moby-Dick in Pictures; and Emma Rose Thompson, co-curator and co-editor of our Moby exhibition and catalog. I will moderate the panel and the questions that will come from the audience. I can’t imagine a better way to start off the whole weekend, and I am greateful to Mark Niekurk and to Shannon Karol, Assistant Director of Interpretive Programming at the museum, for scheduling and confirming this event.
These exciting Moby-Dick developments last week were only the prelude to the grand finale, a production of Julian Rad’s theatrical adaptation of Melville’s novel by the KNOW Theatre of Cincinnati. I had never seen Rad’s adaptation. All I knew in advance was that sea shanties were to be a big part of the KNOW Theatre production. Because Emma Rose and I were getting in touch with a number of my Moby-Dick artist alums in connection with the exhibition and the catalog, I thought it might be fun to organize a group to see the show on its opening weekend. We needed fifteen people for a group rate and we got twenty.
Fourteen of us arranged to have dinner before the performance at Zula, a restaurant across Washington Park from Music Hall in the newly gentrified Over-the-Rhine district of Cincinnati, which the theater had recommended. Over-the-Rhine (O.T.R.) between Main and Elm Streets is now booming with new restaurants, renovated apartments, and rejuventated arts organizations, and the city is now building a new streetcar project that will connect Over-the-Rhine with comparable developments in the area called The Banks next to the Ohio River. All of this progress, of course, has caused dramatic dislocations, along with some new opportunities, for the low-income minority and Appalachian residents of Over-the-Rhine through whose neighborhood my wife and I walked on our way from the parking garage on Twelfth and Vine to the restaurant on Fourteenth and Race.
Our group of fourteen was just the right size for what they call the “chef’s table” at Zula. My Moby students and alums at this dinner began, chronologically, with Steve McCafferty and his wife Renee, he being one my very first students when I began teaching at NKU in the early 1970s. Abby Schlachter, a student in the now legendary “class that never ends” in 1996 and 1997, was here with her husband Jason Langdon. Next to Abby was Carola Bell, a printmaker from my class during the Spring 2000 semester who now works as an assistant registrar at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Anchoring the other side of the table was Camilla Asplen from my 2004 class, here with her husband Dan Mecher and Jude, their forthcoming son, expected in about three and a half weeks. Emma Rose, her boyfriend Andrew, and her parents Diane and Tom completed our group. The food and service were wonderful. Zula specializes in mussels, so I ordered them as a main dish for the first time in my life. (When I grew up north of Seattle on Puget Sound in the 1950s, mussels were black things growing on pilings that we never thought about eating.) I ordered the Thai variety and Camilla made sure that I ordered bread to soak in the broth. She recommended the roasted beet salad to go with it, which made for an entirely satisfying, and filling, meal.
We ate at 5:30 so we could get to the theater soon after seven to meet up with the rest of our party before the play began at 8. Aaron Zlatkin from the 96-97 “class that never ends” was here with his wife Rachel. Kathleen Piercefield from the 2004 Moby class was here with her husband John. John Braden, a fiction writer from my 2004 class in Douglass and Melville was here with his friend Gina. Rounding out oiur party was our South Seas expert on the faculty, Sharyn Jones, chair of Anthropology, who takes students to Fiji every summer. This relaxed time in the lobby provided a good opportunity for various Moby artists to reunite with each other or meet for the first time—as well as to meet Emma Rose and see our sample copy of the catalog. Shortly before the scheduled performance time, the usher opened the door and we walked up the metallic stairway (this is a repurposed brickwalled former industrial building) to the theatrical space seating around 100 persons.
You never know what you will get with a new adaptation of Moby-Dick. Sometimes you are absolutely blown away, as I was by Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales in New York in 2001, and by Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera in Dallas in 2010. Sometimes you are impressed mainly by the resourcefulness, as I was by Ellen Discoll’s Ahab’s Wife at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island in 1998 and an early version of Carl Adinolifi’s One-Man Moby-Dick a year later. Sometimes a work that is underwhelming in one production (such as Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed at Hofstra University in 2001) makes a much stronger impression when produced in a different time and place (performances I saw by professionals at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati several years ago and by undergraduate Theater majors at NKU last fall). Julian Rad’s adaptation of Moby-Dick dates from the period of Rinde Eckert’s Great Whales in New York, as it was first workshopped as part of the Ice Factory Theater Festival there in 2002. The KNOW production was the first time I had heard of this work or seen it performed.
Rad’s adaptation follows the trajectory of the novel from “Call me Ishmael” at the beginning to Ishmael’s survival after the loss of his shipmates at the end. Its 13 roles are performed by 8 actors, all male. This is a full-scale adaptation of the novel, lasting two hours plus intermission. What makes it truly distinctive, for me, is the singing. Rad had originally conceived of it as a “play with music,” and so it is. The cast must have sung about a dozen sea shanties in the course of the performance, and they were all beautifully sung, often led by the voice of Jon Kovach, who played Peleg / Carpenter / Gardiner. All the voices were clear and strong, and the harmonization by James Allen, an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, was superb. The songs were much more than a welcome break from the dramatic tension and complex language. They buoyed and expressed the humanity of the crew in various moods, from the rollicking, beer-guzzling scene of Ishmael’s initiation into the Spouter-Inn to the shanty that literally stops the show as Ahab has raised his arm one last time to strike Moby Dick.
All physical action mementarily suspended as Ahab is about to strike, the united voices of the harmonized crew sound the end of their hearty lives now being lost to their captain’s obsession. This poignant song, in the moment and in retrospect, made me think of the painting Chuck Rust presented as his final project in my Spring 2013 class. Chuck was a History and Journalism major and he had never made a painting of any kind. But he had always loved the Moby-Dick album Leviathan by his favorite band Mastadon.. His favorite song within that album is the 13-minute “Hearts Alive,” imagining the fate of the crew of the Pequod as they are sinking into oblivion, their beating hearts still alive as their drowning bodies “Descend to the bottom / Swim below eternally / Into the deep blue sea.” Chuck made these sailors’ Hearts Alive the literal and symbolic subject of his painting in acrylic on canvas, the white whale’s tail gliding off to the right as the whale ship Rachel approaches the broken fragments of the Pequod to search for any survivors.
I thought all of the characters in this production performed their roles well. The directors and the entire cast did a splendid job, with a minimalist set, of taking us through the entire voyage with them. This is not the place for commentary on the entire production, but one of its signature gestures was the casting of Rico Reid, a black actor and a “self-proclaimed late bloomer” who had served in the U. S. Army, as Captain Ahab. Reid’s portrayal of Ahab was itself late-blooming, not the mesmerizing, oratorical, over-the-top Ahab some actors play from the getgo, but one plagued by the “subterranean miner” that Melville’s novel sees as operating potentially in us all, working away quietly and out of sight until it eats into us with a strength capable of destroying us—and those around us.
Reid’s performance was riveting in the end. In combination with Montez Jenkins’ smooth, limber Queequeg, it also gave the production a connection with the African American life just outside the door through which my wife and I, dressed for a night on the town, had walked on our way from the parking garage to the restaurant. In the play, when Queequeg enters his room in the Spouter-Inn and sees a white stranger in his bed, a frightened Ishmael rises and cries for help just from the sight of him. When Queequeq quickly grabs him from behind around the neck to restrain him, Ishmael feels a fear such as may have been felt by some of the white patrons who had walked along certain streets of the gentrifying Over-the-Rhine on the way to the theater. Melville’s works are all about cross-racial understanding, in this case soon to be embodied by a quickening friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. But Melville is always honest, too, about the obstacles to be overcome, often in the hearts and minds of a white protagonist. I admired that Andrewe Hungerford and Michael Burnham, co-directors of the production, seemed well attuned to such issues in both our own century and that of the show.
I knew I would want some photos of my Moby reunion crew, but I also knew that the lobby of theater is not brightly lighted, so the theater staff had kindly agreed to keep the stage lights on long enough after the performances for us to take a group photograph.
The whole evening turned out well, and was indeed a fitting climax to a very exciting week.