Among the things I’ve done over the three weeks I’ve spent in Sumter, South Carolina, is helped build a set for a Sumter Little Theatre production. My experience with that, and time spent with my childhood pal and star of that theater, Michael Duffy, has led me to reflect on the problem of stardom in our culture, and how it has impoverished us as a people.
When I taught critical thinking at Berkeley City College, one of the resources for the class that I used was a movie called “Starsuckers” (which you can see free online here). It’s an extraordinary documentary that delves into the creation of our “star” culture by the media conglomerates, working from what are near-instinctual needs to gain proximity to power. The movie shows how this process of a centralized focus of power in a “star” disempowers all of us.
Michael, his girlfriend Carmela Bryan, and I were talking about this in the kitchen today over breakfast. We’d just been to see Sumter Little Theatre’s show (for which Michael and I worked to help build the set), a stage production of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” directed by local Eric Bultman. Like community theater across the country, where it still exists, none of the actors were paid, nor was anyone else participating in the production, with the exception of Eric, who, aside from being director of the film, also directs the theater.
If it’s a challenge to take a Hitchcock film to the stage, it’s an even more dangerous and difficult undertaking to transform a suspense movie into a comedy, especially on such a limited budget as that imposed by the constraints on funding for community theaters. But Bultman and the cast did an extraordinary job and in the process showed themselves worthy of the applause they received for their work. Each of the members of the cast, from the beautiful, captivating Christy Smith, the main star, Braden Bunch, and the stupendous support from David Reed (a veteran actor who lives in Columbia, and drives nearly an hour each way, at his own expense, to perform in Sumter for free) and Matt Wilt, all performed excellently.
While Braden did a great job in the lead, Christy, David and Matt rotated through roles and characters with a brilliance and display of talent that only small community theater could have created and nurtured. That is, they worked masterfully within the limitations offered them and displayed a genius in the process that can only be rivaled by the multi-million-dollar productions of Hollywood or Broadway. Like the “Five Obstructions” of Lars von Trier, the community theater artists find their creative genius awakened precisely within the limits given to them. Unlike von Trier, in the community theater, these limits are not some sort of self-imposed stricture, but the limits of their community: its given resources and natural bounty and its willingness to divert those resources from necessities to the “luxury” of art.
Michael, Carmela claims, is the “star of Sumter.” Even granting the biased view of a lover, the statement is probably not too far off the mark. As we entered the theater to take our seats, Michael greeted a majority of the sixty or so members of the audience, one of whom exclaimed, “What are you doing out here (in the audience)? You’re supposed to be up there (on the stage)!”
But the big fish slowly swims through the small pond and takes his place in the cool shadows of the crowd. It’s an image Michael once used to explain why he’d remained in Sumter and not followed me on my journey to California. “I like being a big fish in a small pond. Out there I’d just be another little fish.”
I know he half-regrets that decision: he might have made a bigger splash in California, but he’s grown to his full size in Sumter. And so he only half-regrets staying in what has become his hometown. He drinks from a half-full glass the small pond water of Sumter.
As she pulled a container of yogurt from the fridge for her breakfast this morning, Carmela tells of having seen “Cabaret” in New York earlier this year. “It was great, it really was. But it wasn’t that much better than our production here in Sumter. Really. Michael was great!” Michael worked to get his body into shape to play the lithe androgynous MC, and he still gets comments about that performance on the street a year later.
“All the talent goes to New York. Those who don’t make it end up working in restaurants where they perform. You’ll have people come out with your order, singing and dancing, and they’re great!” Carmela says.
“Yes, all the ‘rejects’” Michael adds, then corrects himself. “I don’t mean ‘rejects.’ I mean, those who haven’t made it big.”
I hesitate. It’s the “Center-Periphery” issue that has been in my face ever since I’ve returned to this small community where I grew up. Sumter, and Shaw Air Force Base in particular, is, as Michael put it to me a few days after I arrived, the “prison from which you escaped.” He’s delighted by my “success” in California, where I’m a smaller fish swimming in a very large pond, indeed: The San Francisco Bay. If we’re comparing sizes... well, all comparisons break down between the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles or New York on one hand, and all the little Sumters across the country. But what people in the SF Bay Area, LA and NYC, and all the little Sumters often tend to forget is the nature of the relationship between the Center and the Periphery: that great Bay is enlarged only by draining all the little ponds; the Great Minds gorge on all the little brains, “drained” from the millions of little ponds. It’s true internationally, but it is just as true internally; the dynamics of Empire are always the same. The amassing of wealth, whether physical, or spiritual, is always done through the impoverishment of the masses in the periphery.
In that sense the story of the Golden Calf is archetypal. Recall how all the children of Israel took off all their adornments of gold, all the wonderfully crafted jewelry that embellished their individual, unique beauty, to make one great Masterpiece toward which they then directed all their attention. Now their beauty had become enormous, and in the redirecting of all their psychic beauty away from themselves, away from their own centers, there was now the Great Center around which they danced like planets around the sun. The delight in losing themselves in that dance, the trance into which they fell in ecstatic (out-of-the-body) contemplation of that Great Object of Beauty could only be described as a religious experience.
This is the internal dynamic of the Empire I’ve witnessed from the first days of this tour across country: The periphery of the large cities, and the interstate arteries that connect them has become a hollowed out shell. Once you leave the interstate for the back roads and the small US highways, you see them, the desolate little towns. Sandwiched between a Walmart and Burger King on one end and a KFC and Dollar Tree on the other are the little empty storefronts where Jane’s Cafe and Mom and Pop’s General Store once thrived. The little gas stations have given way to the Chevron and Shell Traveler’s Centers, and the doctors who once had a little clinic downtown have all gone to work for the Hospital.
That same process has happened to the community theaters. As we waited for the curtain to be drawn last night at Sumter Little Theatre, Carmela turned to me and referred to all the elders who made up the vast majority of the audience. “When these old people are gone, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Theatre. The young people don’t come here. They don’t support the theater.” Indeed, even the movie theaters that once were the center of action in the town squares have given way to the chains of Blockbuster video, which now have lost to online streaming in a further step towards the consolidation of the Golden Calf of Culture.
The curtain drew back and I watched the actors emerge from the darkness. David Reed’s masterful portrayal of Mr. Memory, Matt Wilt’s Scottish character, and Christy as Annabella Schmidt all spellbinding and magical. I’m amazed and delighted to once again dip into the infinite depths of such a very small pond.
Sumter has a population of some forty thousand. It’s in the area of South Carolina known as the “Midlands,” just ten miles from Shaw AFB, where I lived for eight years. When I lived here I hung with that low-class group of people then known as “Shaw Trash” (which included my friend Michael), as opposed to those we called the “Sumter Grits.” The animosity between the two communities, like the segregation of the Old South, is now behind us. Certainly the US hasn’t moved beyond racism, but you could almost believe it here in Sumter. As we sat in the Little Theatre, I noticed the arrival of an interracial couple and discussions between blacks and whites that I never would have seen in the years I lived here. Indeed, I’m tempted to say that the South has more consciously dealt with the issue of racism than many more “enlightened” parts of the US, especially those areas that never thought they were racists to begin with. Here in the South whites are quite conscious of their past as slave masters and their allies, and blacks of their long struggle for equality. There’s no masking that history.
In a similar way, those Air Force “brats” from Shaw have made their way effortlessly into the old Southern Sumter community. Michael, with his father’s Patterson, NJ accent still discernible in a number of words, slips easily into a Southern drawl when he converses with his neighbors. It’s unconscious acting at its best, and it blurs the line between acting and real life, if, indeed, such a line exists. Wordsworth was so very conscious of the process of acting on real life when he describes a child as “the actor [who]cons another part.” Do we really believe we cease to “act” as adults? Certainly not those women who almost universally “make up” their faces before they step into the day from the real life of their nighttime dreams. Certainly not the men who “suit up” before heading off to work, or Church to play the part of “Christian.”
And speaking of that, the 500 churches spread through this small town, not to mention the dozens of informal houses and garages of worship, are only one aspect of the character known as “Sumter.” It’s been attempting for decades to revitalize the downtown and avoid the process of internal destruction taking place across the rest of the country. But Michael remains skeptical. “I’ve seen several attempts to ‘revitalize’ downtown Sumter, and I don’t believe this current attempt will meet with any greater success than the previous ones.” The current attempt involves building a large luxury hotel that will attract the many golfers who come here to play.
But as I walk downtown, I find myself agreeing with Michael. I notice that nearly every other storefront is vacant, and some blocks only have one or two stores open on them.
As I stroll along, I hear someone call my name. I ignore it the first time as a fantasy: no one here knows me anymore. But the second time I hear my name, I turn around. It’s Tracy, Michael’s ex-wife and good friend. She’d seen me pass by and came out to talk.
I tell her that I find the downtown depressing and she shakes her head. “Oh, it’s so much better than before. Things are really looking up. You should have seen it back when the whole downtown was closed.” But I’m not encouraged. I say goodbye and stroll to the end of the block and back downtown again and to my truck.
A minnow has returned to the small pond as a little fish, and he makes a minor splash on reentry. The Saturday before my poetry reading and book party for “Until the Rulers Obey” an article appears on page three of the Sumter Item. Written by Ivy Moore, she has done a great job of summarizing the contents of the book, and publicizing the upcoming event at Patriot Hall, co-sponsored by the Sumter Cultural Commission. The only problem is that she got the day wrong. On Tuesday, I’ll be in Augusta, Georgia, presenting at the public library. It’s Wednesday that I’ll be reading in Sumter.
I won’t blame Ivy’s getting the date wrong for the small turnout. I’m only too conscious that even in Sumter, or perhaps, especially here, I’m a small fish. But the half dozen or so people who show up are all very welcoming and the event, thanks to Carmela’s work in particular, is delightful. I talked about “Until the Rulers Obey” and then read poems from “Translations from Silence” for an hour and then people stayed on for another hour and a half, eating, drinking and talking. I sold five books, the highest ratio of sales to audience of the whole trip.
I presented the night after the Sumter reading at the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House in Columbia at an event sponsored by the Carolina Peace Resource Center. Modjeska was a civil rights activist who had been active in the Communist Party from the 1930s on. She had hosted WEB Dubois and Paul Robeson had performed in this very space at her request. Among the many good works in her life, she’d co-founded the Carolina Peace Center in her house so when it was made a historic landmark by the Republican-dominated state senate, they couldn’t exactly evict the radicals, among them, Brett Bursey, from the house. Brett is more part of my generation, and I remember him from the time I lived here in the late 60s. I didn’t know him personally then, but Michael recalls when we hitchhiked to Columbia in 1968 so we could be part of a “riot,” at the center of which was the arrest of Brett, an anti-war activist. I imagine we were smoking pot and probably taking LSD at the time, which might explain why I have absolutely no memory of the day. Michael, however, remembers the smell of tear gas, our running to and fro from one safe house to another as the National Guard and police made their sweep through the city.
Brett was set up by an FBI agent to engage in the destruction of government property (draft files) and he went briefly to prison. When he reemerged, he started Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW) in Columbia a small run-down space where a number of radicals thrived for years from a printing business. Later, he moved headquarters into the Modjeska Simkins house and started the South Carolina Progressive Network, a group that is attempting to organize people in the state to overthrow an extremely corrupt Republican establishment that has dominated politics in the state for years. As Brett told me after my presentation, some 21 of 90 or so state senators ran unopposed and garnered over 99% of the vote. The Network is hoping to change that. In the discussion following my presentation (attended by a dozen or so members of the Center and the Network), Brett mentions that the present right-wing governor Nikki Haley won the election in which only 59,000 voters participated. But some 113,000 voters in South Carolina have been negatively impacted by the Republican State Senate’s refusal to expand Medicaid. That’s the group the Network is hoping to organize in their “Healthy Democracy” drive. I wish them good fortune in that endeavor, and in their work to build momentum in their “Truthful Tuesdays” movement where they’re trying to replicate the movement under way in North Carolina.
And North Carolina is next stop for me. I head out Monday the 19th, appropriately Malcolm X’s birthday, to record the first “Moral Monday” event as the state legislature reconvenes.