Killing Caesar, Resurrecting Lloyd

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Saturday night, the Yellow Springs Theater Company (YSTC)'s production of Julius Caesar gave up the ghost (click here and here to catch up on the series). Reviews were mixed but weighted heavily toward positive. Shakespeare purists were insulted, and legitimate criticisms of the concept and its implementation were given and received. We all left everything we had on the stage, including blood. Ya' know, with the stabbing 'n all.

Last night, I presided over the memorial service of Lloyd Webster Kennedy. Lloyd was born in 1914. He started living in Yellow Springs in 1938, renting a room in the house he would eventually purchase and make his home for 79 years. He was the Johnny Appleseed of our little village, ensuring through planting and maintenance that we have more trees within our village limits than we do people. And when a tattooed, be-earringed, loc-wearing pastor assumed the pulpit of a church he had been a member of for almost as long as he was a local citizen, Mr. Kennedy made himself known. He made introductions the first week I assumed the pulpit, my hair not yet in locs and numerous tattoos, of which Lloyd was fascinated, to come. The second week, he approached me and asked: "Do you remember my name?" I stammered: "Dr…." He shook his head. "No, not a doctor. Just a mister. Lloyd Kennedy. I expect you to remember it next week."

I did.

Lloyd was a tenacious man; in the four years I was blessed to serve as his pastor, Lloyd gave me marching orders three times. The first you just read; the second was work with kids and the YSPD, which I did (although other village-based groups have done much more, as they should, being as they are represented by those who can more accurately describe the challenges youth of color face); and the third was for his memorial last night, and what I am to do for the future of First Presby. Yup. Just weeks away from dying, he wasn't interested in talking about himself or beliefs about what might happen. He wanted to make sure the church is taken care of. That's just how Lloyd rolled.

I wrote in the last installment about how there was a dichotomy in portraying Caesar on Saturday night and then leading service Sunday morning. I noted that I felt the work of God in these two experiences. I must confess a similar happening last night. I didn't know if I was going to be able to gather myself; a hypomania careening toward depression had only a few hours until the crash. My greatest fear was having Lloyd's memorial service be detrimentally impacted by my illness, so I showed half an hour before and I left right after.

But God is good, and from the opening number–a stunningly beautiful rendition of "Longtime Traveller–to the closing song, "My Way," performed by a congregant, longtime friend, and a man who could give Frank Sinatra a run for his money, the Spirit was present. I forgot my anxieties and had the blessed ability to be mindfully present in the moment. Per Lloyd's instructions, we sang more than we spoke. We did go over the 1-hour allotment Lloyd had demanded. I imagine that when I arrive at the pearly gates,* Lloyd will be waiting for me with a word or two about that, but as Lloyd's son said, "He was a taskmaster, but he also was very forgiving."

The sanctuary was packed. PACKED. Many of Lloyd's contemporaries have already gone to the sweet by-and-by, a song sung last night by our very own Soulstirrers. There were numerous pastors who could have given Lloyd a more accurate or apt pastoral eulogy. But with it falling to me, I say thanks be to God for the ways in which the events of life help me enter more deeply into the imitatio christi, the imitation of Christ. Putting on the skin of Caesar was the closest I have come to glimpsing for myself the allure of absolute power. All around the village, people are still saying, "Hail, Caesar!" I generally respond with "Yes, hail me. Hail me." Then we laugh. But being Caesar engaged my ego on myriad levels. Generally, I try to cut people off when they pay me compliments, but I have stopped doing that; I understand that these are words that are meaningful to them and that I should receive said words with gratitude and humility. My challenge then becomes not thinking that I am more important than anyone else.

Below is the eulogy I delivered for Lloyd. I imagine he would say it was too long, even though it is under 500 words. Lloyd had an iron will and was lovingly called "slave driver" by members of the church with whom he worked. He never did so, however, because he wanted to be praised or he wanted to exert power over others. Lloyd sought solutions and action; he believed in community and treating each other with kindness.

Then fall Caesar. And rise, Lloyd.

I honestly don’t know if I ever heard Lloyd say the name, Jesus. But three years ago when there was 7 inches of snow on the ground, Faye and Lloyd, dressed as always in his jacket and tie, were in their usual pew and our mighty dozen had a powerful worship. I got my first “nice sermon” from him that day, which made my heart jump, but that was really the closest we came to God talk when he held court in Westminster after services.

But I stand here today to say that Lloyd Kennedy was perhaps the most truly Christian person I have met in my life. He followed Jesus in all that he did. In his commitment to his work, both professionally and after retirement, in his marriages, the first one with Mary for 53 ½ years and 5 days and the second one with Faye, which enabled him to live the rest of his years, in his words, “happily ever after.” Lloyd was a loving father and family man, a dedicated community member, and a stalwart congregant of this church for three-quarters of a century.

That alone does not make one a Christian; many people in and out of the faith are good, loving persons. For me, Lloyd tops the list because he did it without bravado or the need for praise. He spoke little about Jesus because he was busy doing what Jesus tells us to do. He was a good disciple of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Just a few months before he passed, Lloyd was out front of this church overseeing the installation of Kentucky Bluegrass he donated to us because the planted grass was, in his words, “all wrong.” When I visited with him last, a visit that stretched over two hours, Lloyd wasn’t interested in speaking about spiritual matters, he was giving me marching orders for today and for the future of the church.

Please don’t hear this and think that Lloyd was not a spiritual man. He most certainly was; Lloyd knew who Jesus was to him, a good teacher, and he spent his life following those teachings. He said many times that he had lived a good, full life, and that his final years with Faye were a great blessing. For a man who spoke so little about religion, calling his wife a blessing still brings tears to my eyes. Lloyd didn’t need to talk about God because he made God a verb, and for that I say, thanks be to God. Rest in power Lloyd. We’re better for having known you, and we’ll always look for you in the trees. Amen.    

*I don't actually believe that there are pearly gates; click here for some thoughts on the afterlife. Ultimately, I know that I don't know, and Jesus gives me enough to do on this side of the veil without being obsessed with death and its aftermath.

Being Caesar

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Seven weeks ago, I wrote about starting a production of Julius Caesar. It is a couple hours away from the dress rehearsal, which we will have to do in the elementary school gym seeing that our fantastic in-the-round stage is currently being assaulted by Jupiter and Caesar doesn’t mess with umbrellas. It’s time for the second of three entries.

This production has been difficult for a lot of reasons that are endemic to the creative process so I shall pass over them by simply saying that I am tired. The energy it takes to play this character was underestimated greatly by yours truly; as I’ve written about before, I have played a type in my last three productions: Pontious Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judge Danforth in The Crucible, and now Julius Caesar. They all have power; they all are conflicted, but for very different reasons; and while none of the roles are leads, the stories fall apart without them. No matter how good the principles are, if the performances in these parts are poor, the whole production is pulled down. I make no comment on whether I play the role well, I simply comment that this is my experience.

Caesar has been the most difficult, in no small part because I was a Classics minor at Kalamazoo College, and when I finished up at Antioch, I did so through the fantastic World Classics Curriculum, which required more work than many graduate programs. I’ve studied Latin (and Greek, of course), and I’m a junkie for anything about the ancient world. But this production does not seek to be historically accurate–and Shakespeare’s play takes many historical liberties as well–but the character represents Empire as a Platonic Form. He has strengths and weaknesses, loves and hatreds, confidences and insecurities; he is both incredibly vulnerable (I have a seizure both on- and off-stage) and dangerously powerful (it takes a vast, Roman-wing conspiracy to bring me down). He also has relatively little stage time, so it is a great deal to communicate in a short period of time, and I have the added fact of my physical appearance. A Caesar with locs and a long beard? It will be a bridge too far if the performance is lacking.

So I have made some decisions, some I know the director does not necessarily like and some driven by my desire to not play Pilate or Danforth. I have no problem with character types, but I want them to be distinct and distinctive. Some of that is getting out of the way of superior writing; I have been blessed to work with incredible people on incredible shows. I know what I can do and what I cannot do, so my sincere hope is that I have not overestimated my talent or ability to enter into the character. I can say that I will leave it all on the stage; I don’t know if or when I will make back into a show, or if I will be able to work again with the caliber of talent we have in this show (seriously, it is mad sick). I’m gonna give it everything.

Dress rehearsal is when I no longer rehearse the character, I inhabit him. It’s when I commit totally to the world we are creating. Otherwise, why ask people to come watch? If we don’t believe in what we are doing, why should the audience?

Performances are July 14-15, 21-22 at Mills Lawn School. Admission is free. Bring your own chairs or blankets.

Finding Caesar

***I do not speak for the Yellow Springs Theater Company as an entity; this is entirely my own opinion and about my experience being in this production. I am completely responsible for everything contained herein***

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I grew up acting. My first role was a lead, John Henry West in a production of Member of the Wedding. I acted all through school. Yellow Springs has long been a hotbed of actors; John Lithgow, who grew up here, is the son of Arthur Lithgow, who oversaw the nationally-recognized Summer Shakespeare Festival at Antioch College, the first such festival to perform the entire catalog. In the past several years, Yellow Springs Theater Company has revived the festival. And though it hath been nearly five years since last I trod the boards–as Judge Danforth in a production of The Crucible that staged the last act in Guantanamo Bay Prison, with me ordering the torture of John Proctor–I am returning to the stage as Julius Caesar in a production of the eponymous Shakespearian drama.

Those who are or have been involved in theater will probably attest that there are times in which you understand that you’ve been called, gathered, appointed, anointed, and commissioned to do a particular show. It is as if Thespis of Icara is calling to us in the fullness of time, reminding us of our sacred duty. Art matters. It is the stuff of revolutions; it is a playing out of our hopes and fears, it is dealing with the complexities of life in intense, raw, and vulnerable expression that capitalism can’t touch. Not when you do it for the people, without charge, because you truly believe that at this particular place, in this particular time, with these particular players, you are going to say something. You are going to use a vehicle that is as timeless as so-called Western Civilization, and you’re going to speak to the immediacy of now.

I have often hesitated to call myself an actor because let’s be honest: this place produces superstars. Dave Chappelle, Trace Lysette, Kat Livingston, Martin Bakari, Bruce Cromer, Michael Malarkey, and I’m only naming people who work on a stage or a set. The musicians’ list is even more insanely packed. Like, for reals. The Shire is a great place to be of an artistic bent. But being in a local theater company has helped me understand that actors are about the work. Everyone I listed above would tell you that even if they did not make money for doing what they do, they would still do what they are doing. I love to act. The discovery of the director’s vision, of your castmates and their characters, of the relationships that impact the internal work every actor must do to discover the way they are meant to tell the story. My Caesar is a bit cheeky because it is written right into the text, but he is also passionate and feels he is ordained to rule the world. Yet, he has a serious illness and is surrounded by a contingent of people who represent dangers most imminent. My Caesar tries to disarm people with charm; if that does not work, he will dispatch you with the fullness of power, which I also bring out in my death scene. This is a great journey.

What is fascinating is that Julius Caesar is being performed in a lot of places, and now the running tradition of casting Caesar as a current or previous president has suddenly become relevant to reactionary, right-wing “activists” who think the scary liberals are fomenting insurrection for a Maoist take-over of the government, something already started by Bernie Sanders and George Soros, don’t you know? Because they heard that some fancy-pants lesbians–you know, that Greek word for actors–are killing Trump on stage, it is obviously a clear signal to Black Lives Matter to once again dishonor Dr. King by blocking traffic because when they won’t comply with “simple orders,” cops have no choice but to kill them. Whether by chokehold or multiple GSWs will depend on the particular situation. Meanwhile, the scientists and alternative energy lobbyists kill literally tens of thousands of obsolete, deadly jobs by pushing the leftist climate-change agenda–not to be confused with the gay agenda, mind you–of the DemocRAT Party (shhhh, it doesn’t matter that Republicans control everything right now). All across the country, some of these people are reasoning, lusty liberals are suddenly deciding to disrespect the president by killing him. Gasp! And they must be protested!

But here’s the deal: anyone who knows anything about theater knows that seasons are planned out well, WELL ahead of time. The Muses made it clear, to companies across the land, that now it is time to bring Julius Caesar to the fore once again.

This is the part of a lifetime for this time in life. I am so grateful.

Stay tuned for more blogs on the production, and be sure to come out and see the show. I promise, you will not regret it!!