Best known for the Off-Broadway musicals, "The Last Session," "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" and "New World Waking," a song cycle for peace and justice.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Frederick Douglass, Rise Up!

Recorded live. St. Clement's Episcopal Church, NYC, Sanctuary Choir. Vocalist: Steve Schalchlin. Music & Lyrics by Steve Schalchlin. Video by Jim Freeman & Steve Schalchlin. Fr. Jeff Hamblin, priest. Darryl Curry, Minister of Music.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Frederick Douglass and Religion.

A week ago, we sang the Frederick Douglass song I wrote. The video will be available soon. And just when I thought I was done...

I performed a speech of Frederick Douglass' in church this past Sunday. I hadn't planned it. It was the speech about slavery and religion -- and how the religious leaders of the time -- so blithely accepted discrimination with a Biblical defense. And I spent the whole week memorizing it.

Christian leaders were on the forefront of maintaining this cruelty. But... many were not.

He used Christianity as one of his main sources for arguing, logically, for the end of slavery. He also knew the Constitution and used it in his arguments. He was a devout Christian.

So why bring up slavery and religion? Aren't we nicely over it? I can tell you why. It's in the DNA of our country and our faith. Until I read Douglass, slavery wasn't real to me. Yes, I had seen images of floggings, etc. I understood the human physical suffering.

It's the mental anguish that is the true torturer. A whipping ends. The mind endures. The shame, humiliation, degradation. When you read the words in the mind of an ex-slave, you may not have been through his experience, but you will know those feelings, if you are a creature with any kind of compassion.

We have all felt those things. Now, imagine them going on all day, every day. Never could I have told my family, back when I was in the closet, what was going through my head. They probably just thought I was weird or selfish (which I am, too, but that's not today's topic).

I felt from another world entirely, but I was dancing in this one. Desperately trying not to get found out. It was the 60s and 70s. Though much had changed, acceptance and understanding for those "of my kind" simply didn't exist in the bubble of east Texas.

Not blaming anyone. Not shaming anyone. None of you (back then) could have known. I was a very good liar because I used religion to enforce the lie. It's a type of self-help thing attached to the idea of miracles. If you live the "miracle" "as if" it were true, then it would become true. So, it wasn't a lie if I "stepped out on faith." I just pretended.

It's not the same thing as slavery. It's not the same thing as racial prejudice.

So when I get into the mind of a brilliant thinker who began as a slave, I get as close as I can get. Only a fool, I would tell myself, would turn away from this kind of insight, wisdom and knowledge.

What makes the Douglass journey so rewarding is that he handled it all with genuine wit. He could laugh at it while slicing it into ribbons. He could triumph because he had the mind to triumph.

He was free because he never accepted himself as anything but a full human being. A free mind can do anything. Once I let the chains of whatever is holding me back in my head loose; once they are cleared out, then suddenly there is clarity.

Just being inside his mind has changed me. And it's going to go on changing me because, as is written on a site dedicated to him "Every Month is Black History Month." And even more piercing, every month is also white history month. We are all the products of history.

So, I thank 45 for bringing him back to me. And for those of you who read this far, thanks for letting me occupy your mindspace with my thoughts.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Frederick Douglass Tribute.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 19 at 11am, we will attempt to bring Frederick Douglass into the beautiful chapel at St. Clement's Church with a new composition I've been working on. (Our choir is a highly trained, world class choir with magnificent voices and Broadway credits. I'd be a fool to not use them. I'm so excited. If you're planning to come, come early because we'll be in the tiny chapel rather than on the stage in the main theater).

For weeks, I have been obsessing over this great man, reading all his speeches and rereading his autobiographies. I feel wholly inadequate to the task, so I will have to pray for his spirit to rise up and guide me -- and us.

But the only way I truly know how to learn about him is to listen to his words as I say them aloud in my work sessions. Listen to the meticulously careful way he allows his deeply felt, pain and anger to be expressed. Graceful, humble, hilarious, truthful, gentle, unrelenting, credible, sometimes with sarcasm so subtle that it feels more like a loving parent's gentle rebuke and yet so pointed, a razor-sharp, ninja slice so deadly, that no logical argument against it, however brilliant and twisted, is even possible.

Naked, without his mother, alone on a dirt floor. He rose from the bottom of a corrupt society. He had nothing to lose. So he told the truth.

Imagine that. Someone who tells the truth.

In our day, and just as much in his day, clever people are/were able to use just enough of the truth to form an acceptable argument for those predisposed to the message. This happens on all sides. This is the human condition. This is not merely about politics. A good con man knows this.

This is who we are.

But every once in a while some voice comes along. And you know the voice is telling a truth that is grounded in a deeper place.

Someone with nothing left to lose, who has already seen the worst horror, has already lived the worst atrocity, there is nothing left that you can do to him except try to lock him up again.

The Fugitive Slave Act speech that Douglass gives, where he exposes the fact that this law returned the entire country into a slave state, meant that every word and every movement of his could land him in some hellhole, naked on a plantation in Mississippi or Alabama. (Though world famous, had a very angry and frustrated "owner.")

So he simply told the truth.

I experienced this myself when I thought I was going to die, 20 years ago. When I had nothing left to lose, when I knew that my end was coming, a different kind of chemical must've invaded my head from someplace deep inside because I can remember the exact moment when it went away, and I thought to myself, "Is this what life used to be like?"

And I've been chasing that state of mind ever since.

It is like a transcendent experience. No way to convey it it to you. Because there is only my memory of it. Then there is the description of my memory of it. Then there is your reception of the description of my memory of it. And finally, your conclusion about the reception of the description of my memory of it.

I have been yearning to find that state again. To accept my death so presently that I can get my those chemicals pumping back into my head again. That state of mind.

And I found it. I found it in the writings of Frederick Douglass. It is there. It is unmistakable. It is wise. It is final. It is thrilling. It comes from direct experience but it's only a state of mind. And everyone knows it when they hear it.

To be born again.

And it is there in the hand and the pen and the voice and the words and the spirit of Frederick Douglass.

How do you put that into a song?

Or maybe I should be asking myself what, besides music, can capture it?

And once again I shrink from the monumental task. How could I ever write anything that would be worthy? I wonder if Linn-Manuel Miranda asked himself these questions when he was reading about Hamilton? There must've been a moment when he said I know this guy.

I have not gotten there with Fredrick Douglass. And no, I'm not going to write a musical where I portray Frederick Douglass. White people playing black people has already been done and it doesn't really work for me.

But if he is watching me and guiding me, which he literally is because his words are right there in front of me, then the best I can do is just tell the truth. The only way I know how. With utter simplicity and a piano.

And I do have one thing working in my favor.

A deadline.

Thank God for deadlines.

#FrederickDouglassRiseUp #BlackHistoryMonth

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Rise Up, Frederick Douglass.

The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass are FREE.

They are also be the most harrowing, the most lovely, the most forgiving, the most thrilling and the most important books I have or ever will read about the American experience.

Ten years ago or so, while trolling through the "free books" online, randomly enjoying all this new accessibility, I found them. I had heard of Douglass, but like most people, I knew very little about him. I wasn’t researching anything. They were free! That was the promise of this new connectivity.

They weren't easy to read because, at the time, the only copies I could find were photos of the pages in a low-rez pdf.

If you've seen or read "12 Years A Slave," it was nothing compared to what Douglass endured. And then he was friends with Abraham Lincoln.

Born in a shack, naked for much of his early childhood. Illegal for him to be taught. Torn from his mother, who hiked miles every night to hold him just for a moment and then hiked back to start her day as a slave on another plantation.

Started learning when he looked at the master kid’s lessons, surreptitiously. Traded lessons for favors with poor "white trash" kids. Beaten nearly to death multiple times. Then he escaped, helped by an abolitionist.

When he first spoke to an abolitionist group up north, he reports that many/most thought he was like a trained monkey, reciting words that had been given to him. Even those opposed to slavery still had no clue that Black people had minds and brains, and could even be smarter than the self-satisfied White people who lived then (and now).

Faced with his towering intellect, they suddenly realized they were not the smartest people in the room, and they didn't know how to process this.

He should have been the president after Lincoln. Imagine that as an alt-universe.

I’m glad President Trump stumbled over this. It might seem a small thing to those who support him. And who knows? Maybe I’m misjudging him. Maybe he knows all about Frederick Douglass. Maybe that’s just the way he talks. I’m willing to give him benefit of the doubt.

But what I really think needs to happen is for people to learn about Frederick Douglass.

Look in that mirror.

And if you don’t see yourself and your own humanity, go back and pick up his book and read it again.

His story is the epic I’ve been wanting to see dramatized for a decade now. I don’t think I can write it. But I know I can write about him. In fact, I just did.

I think he can teach us a lot more than any of us even know. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Without you, Black History Month would be little more than a series of Google doodles.

Rise up, Frederick Douglass.

Rise up.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Prospero's Kidney Stone.

In class yesterday, I was doing a speech from Prospero which evoked deep feelings of mortality. It all felt so intense, I had to leave class after doing the scene.

But, actually, I was passing a kidney stone. I think I'm still passing it. I know the little tickle well. Thankfully, I'm not in pain. Just discomfort, like when you kind of sit on one of your balls and it didn't hurt so much as just cause a lingering ache, and you can't quite find a way to sit that doesn't feel like you're squeezing it again.

So today, I must drink lots of lemon water and convalesce. And pee.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Violence of the Tongue.

Ridicule of your opponent is strictly forbidden in a legitimate peace movement. #MLK called it Violence of the Tongue.

This is why it's ineffective in persuasion.

#MLKday #peace #nonviolence #resistance #soulforce

Monday, December 26, 2016

RIP George Michael, Godfather of New World Waking.

If not for George Michael, I wouldn't have played John Lennon's IMAGINE piano. We would not have had our mini-concert under the tree planted in Bill Clayton's memory which gave me the concept of New World Waking.

I'm sorry I never got to meet or speak to him and tell him how much he affected my life. I hope, in the new year, you will reach out to someone who affected your life in some small or large miraculous way, unknowingly perhaps, and let them know.

For instance, the creator of the drug that saved my life, Dr. Bruce Dorsey, reached out to me after reading about my new life in my Bonus Round journal, long before it was a Bonus Round. He got to see me come back to life, whereas his life was really constrained to a lab. He job was molecules, not lives saved.

He said, "It's so great to actually see someone living their life because of something I did. I usually only see the lab."

So, thank you, Caroline True, for coordinating the John Lennon IMAGINE piano project. I don't know what became of it, but I know what it did for me. And since you were his friend, I am sending you my sincere love and sympathy. I knew, in person, how much you cared for him.

This is, indeed, a sad day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bass Playing.

Bass playing is all about the groove. I almost felt the groove this morning. 20 takes in. For just one moment, I felt "it," the groove they talk about. It's sensual and controls everything in the song.

And as quick as I got it, it got away because, probably, I enjoyed the moment of getting it and became self-conscious. I can get the notes, but the groove? Stupid bass players never warned me. They just stand there, looking all cool and barely moving.

So, here I sit for the past two hours and all I want is to get this one song. Over and over, I play it. But I just don't lock in. It's elusive, this groove. I took it for granted as a pianist because I could coast over the top of it. Took bass players for granted because I essentially played their part on piano.

But it's different. It's almost as if you have to change your own brain-mind, force it into a different type of thinking and feeling.

So, I haven't been getting it. And then there was that moment. That one moment where I felt it.

Okay, enough about me. What eludes you?

(And I go back into the cave.)

#elusivegroove #stupidbassplayers #nowimoneofthem

Monday, December 12, 2016

After reading “Once, We Were Heroes”

After reading “Once, We Were Heroes”
By Steve Schalchlin

I found an essay about AIDS called

"Once, We Were Heroes by Mark S. King

I read it out loud yesterday in my Sunday afternoon acting class
At first I could tell I was rushing
I always rush through things

The first story in the essay is about a man
Trying to keep his dying lover from drinking the poison
The two of them had lovingly concocted together

He failed

As the gravity of that sheet-soaked passage hit me
Two tormented souls struggling for one more moment,
I became aware of the young people in our class.
I realized how shocking it must have sounded to them.

"Here, honey. Here’s that poison we mixed together!"

Because to me, having lived through that era,
It felt like a normal and completely understandable

To die of this disease is to suffer.
There were so many people dying so quickly
in such horrible painful excreta-filled
‘holocaust bodies and faces’ ways

So familiar, that I didn't even flinch when I read it myself


I looked up into the eyes of the 25-year-old boy sitting across from me
His eyes, normally so filled with animated hungry life, wide-eyed and bright
Seemed remote, turned aside
Like he was not wanting to absorb it
or perhaps he was fearing that I, myself, may still go down that way
I’m one medication-fail away from it.

I began to weep
And breathe
And slow down

As I continued describing A Medieval past
An alt history
Of bloody painful isolated death

And then I realized

Back then, he would've been among the first to go.

Like most young actors, he is physically beautiful
Talented and reckless

Like most young people who come from good parents
From Indiana,
He is Eager to sample life

We were all eager to sample life
It was all so very innocent
We were all so very innocent
Kids in a candy store
Away from home
In a profession where the goal is to play

We were all beautiful
We came from worlds without outside voices
We lived in bubbles untouched by the Other
We didn’t know there were others like us

So, when we found each other...

After weeks of a steady grind here in
My bonus round life
I had been questioning myself

But, in this moment, as the faces of the dead
Appeared in the faces of every person around that table
I was reminded why I grab life so by the throat
And ride it like a freight train

And live the shit out of it

Why learn guitar all of a sudden after 62 years?
Why write songs?

Because, if I do not, I will be betraying them
the ones we lost
the ones who fell by the wayside
my entire dead generation

How dare I get the opportunity to live
And then squander it
Those hospital beds
People who, in a matter of weeks,
Went from being breathtakingly beautiful to skeletal

I could not look at him and not see them
or worse, imagine what he would look like
if he were them
See his eyes sunken and hollow
His robust cheeks sagging and yellow

I have to live the life they were begging for in each doomsday prayer
I want to grab him and tell him that HE also has to live the life they fought for
How easily it can be taken away

Every single one of them died with a broken fantasy image
of the life they would have led
The dances they would have performed
The Broadway roles they would have created
The New York Times reviews!

But I'm the one who got the bonus round
I feel like I have squandered a lot of it, as it is
But I have found a place in my life where I can do my work
I have a room in which I can rehearse
People helping me
People coaching me
People singing with me

I have people who want to act scenes with me
Who Want To Teach Me To Dance

They would have fought for these opportunities
They would not have wasted their lives
Well maybe some of them would have
Don't all of us waste parts of our lives
Or feel like we've wasted part of our lives

But sometimes I feel them watching me
And they are saying, Really?
That’s the best you can do with your life?

And my answer is always, No. No.

I can do more. And I will.