Alicia Jo Rabins

Musical biographies relive Pepper, debunk Madoff

Two of this weekend's shows had key themes in common, but couldn't have felt more different.

If you will, a story problem:

Two semi-biographical musical theater pieces open in the same weekend. One commemorates Native American jazz musician Jim Pepper. It’s fueled by a positive attitude and bound for simplicity. The other rebukes Jewish Ponzi-scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff. What emotions is it fueled by, and what’s it driving at? At what point(s) will the two musicals meet, and at what angle(s) will they diverge?

Still from video by Mustafa Bhagat, Flicker Filmworks

Still from video by Mustafa Bhagat, Flicker Filmworks

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff , presented by Boom Arts, is Alicia Jo Rabins’ labor of—not exactly love, but let’s say concern and fascination, in response to the infamous Madoff Ponzi scheme. When the former chairman of NASDAQ was busted in 2008 for robbing investors blind since the ’80s, fabricating all of their earnings and never trading a single stock on their behalf, Rabins was close enough to feel the fallout. An artist’s residency had landed the musician and Torah scholar in the heart of New York’s financial district, in a vacant floor of an office building near Madoff’s. The neighborhood was abuzz, and so was the Jewish community. It seemed that Madoff’s actions had, in one way or another, touched everyone she knew.

Rabins began networking through her Jewish community and interviewing acquaintances who’d had direct experience with Madoff: two finance executives who’d foreseen the disaster, an elderly woman who’d lost her savings, a lawyer defending clients who’d overdrawn their false accounts and were now being subjected to “claw backs,” an FBI agent who’d raided Madoff’s headquarters on the 17th floor of the iconic “lipstick building”…

What was it about “not Madoff the criminal, but Madoff the phenomenon” that inspired such misplaced trust from his community? What irresistible promises did he dangle? And what does investors’ acceptance of those false promises teach us about the modern American mindset? Namely: “We’re in a culture where we don’t have to look out for one another…the only way to be truly safe is to make a bunch of money and put it far, far away….We have an unconscious faith that money can protect us from tragedy and old age.”

The scope of Rabins’ research is pretty stunning. With the ideal combination of distance and personal stake in the story, she could just as easily have created an academic lecture on Madoff. But to many, especially in the Jewish faith community, Madoff’s betrayal isn’t merely academic; it’s personal, even spiritual—”the definition of ‘bad for Jews,'” Rabins laughs wryly. To wit, the synagogue closest to Madoff’s Palm Beach, Florida country club reportedly excommunicated him by saying a kaddish, a prayer traditionally reserved for the dead. So, for additional philosophical context, Rabins drew quotes from Biblical and Kabbalistic scripture. She even interviewed a Jewish Buddhist monk.

In Kaddish, Rabins weaves a set of practical and spiritual crises into a rich sensory tableau. She narrates her perception of the Madoff events and re-enacts her interview subjects’ testimony in song. She live-loops melancholy violin riffs and strews torn-up papers on the stage. Behind her, in Zak Margolis’s sparse animations, line graphs veer off course, morph into skyscraper windows, blow away like leaves. Leaves blow through living rooms, too…a false sense of security shattered. “Bring me your empty jars; I will fill them…” sings Rabins, making reference to a Kabbalist tale about creation that involves vessels cracking under the pressure of God’s divinity. Storytelling that could’ve been melodramatic is instead measured, empathetic and elegant. It’s as emotionally haunting as it is intellectually resonant. Like a more natural, less comic Lauren Weedman, Rabins effortlessly shrugs in and out of the characters she’s interviewed. She sits like a man. She postures like a cop. She wrings her hands like a widow.

Her music, too, is strikingly well-suited to the themes. The lines on the graph climb and fall; the violin ascends and descends. Live loops chop data into repetitive segments; the stock figures do the same. Yet amid the staccatos of suspense and the swoons of despair, there’s of course a romance, a humanity. For mourning, the violin is the perfect thing to play.

Ed Edmo and M. Cochise Anderson share folklore before kicking Jim Pepper jams.

Ed Edmo and M. Cochise Anderson share folklore before kicking Jim Pepper jams.

The Jim Pepper Project, not to be confused with the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival that happens later in the summer, is Triangle Productions’ and artistic director Don Horn’s tribute to a local Native American jazz legend who pioneered jazz/rock/Native folk fusion from the ’60s to the early ’90s. Pepper died at age 52 from lymphoma. Best known for his single Witchi Tai To, a jazz variation of a tribal folk tune, Pepper also toured Europe, released several full albums, and was heavily honored by his tribes, the Kaw and Creek. His saxophone sits in the National Museum of the American Indian.

“This isn’t a ‘Fosse Fosse Fosse’ sort of show,” Horn explained last week to KBOO’s Dmae Roberts—seeming to mean that, compared to the razzle-dazzle dance numbers of jazz choreographer Bob Fosse, Pepper would be sedate. An understatement; the show’s tribal dances are reserved and regal, almost anti-Fosse. Okay. So this show doesn’t overreach with flash. Is it weighty, then, with substance?

Well…to a point of satisfaction and due deference, well shy of new insight. The link between jazz and native music is mentioned, but not analyzed; a Native American myth is recited, but not decoded; the lingering effects of Native marginalization are touched on, but not delved into or depicted; details about Pepper’s life and feelings are mostly skimmed over, less like in-depth biography than promotional music “bio.”

There’s only one good thing about a good man dying: It affords us a chance to learn more about his life. Quotes can be culled from a diary or personal correspondence. Unpleasant events can be brought to light as learning experiences. Even for an all-ages audience, real-life drama is welcome. Let’s see how a great person became or remained great in the face of resistance.

Taken as a whole, The Jim Pepper Project is more like a tribute concert with commentary than a full-fledged play. Pepper appreciators won’t learn anything they didn’t already know…but they’ll surely welcome the chance to revisit his music and honor his spirit with the help of a sparkling cast of actor/musicians. M. Cochise Anderson practically shoots sunbeams in the role of Pepper. He also plays the Native American wooden flute and the saxophone and sings. Salim Sanchez as Sundiata is a second Mister Charisma, making his dynamic entrance dancing up the aisle to take his place on percussion. Karen Kitchen as Sun Carrier is quietly dignified, singing a lovely Native-language translation of “Amazing Grace.” While not “Fosse,” the show certainly doesn’t lack for flair.

Two biography musicals, each about ethnic community figureheads, each a window into belief systems of a particular culture…couldn’t be more different in vision and tone. As the weekend closes, only Pepper, which continues through May 31, remains on offer; Kaddish has already finished a too-short four-night run at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theatre, but seems worthy of a remount or two in the future. (The next My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow, perhaps?) If you caught both shows along with ArtsWatch, you may wish you could cross them…to get the deeper read, on the better man.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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