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Take Action Tour: Trust In Hope

Talk is cheap. Louis Posen of Hopeless/Subcity Records and Reese Butler were tired of all the talk and took action against suicide with the Take Action Tour.

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The numbers are flat out scary: suicide claims the lives of 30,000 Americans a year. About 5,000 of these are young people; people like you and me who have their entire lives ahead of them. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15 – 24. It is also the second leading cause of death for college-aged youth and considering that many of our readers fall in this age range, the numbers take on a greater relevance.

Louis Posen and Reese Butler aren’t superheroes from a comic book, but if there were such a thing in real life, Louis and Reese would be flying high above the clouds. When most people say they support causes and say they want to help out, there is a lot of talk but little action. Talk is cheap. Louis Posen of Hopeless/Subcity Records and Reese Butler were tired of all the talk and took action against suicide with the Take Action Tour.

In 1998, Reese Butler lost his wife to suicide. That same year, Butler decided to take action; he founded the National Hopeline Network 1-800-SUICIDE. He explains his motivation, “My wife Kristen Brooks died on April 7th, 1998 by suicide after the loss of our stillborn child. I wanted to donate money in her name to an organization actively preventing tragic deaths such as hers. When I discovered there was not even a national toll free number for people in a psychiatric crisis, I set about creating the Kristen Brooks Hope Center and developing the National Hopeline Network 1-800-Suicide.”

For quite some time, Hopeless/Subcity Records have donated portions of the proceeds from their CDs to various charities, something that makes their label stand out above the rest. When Louis and Hopeless/Subcity were looking to expand their awareness, they didn’t have to look far. “The beginning was in 1998 when Hopeless realized we were reaching a lot of people” Posen says, “We realized there was a unique opportunity to reach a lot of people and do something positive with it. So we started the next year, we launched a tour to bring the charity concept of Hopeless on the road and that was the first Take Action Tour. Then in 2000, we hooked up with the Hopeline Network, 1-800-SUICIDE, we were looking for an organization who understood what a punk and hardcore tour was all about, understood that this was an opportunity for them to reach the type of people they wanted to reach with their mission.”

Reese Butler talks about the importance of music in helping spread the word, “Music is a universal language that speaks to the heart and soul. The passion from which artists write and perform allows people to be touched in a way no other medium can connect close to in terms of reaching millions of people with a message of hope and inspiration.” Hopeless/Subcity could have decided to use the Take Action Tour to raise awareness for anything, but suicide prevention is what the kids need. Posen explains, “The reason that suicide prevention and the cause of suicide became so important to Subcity is because of the audience that we’re reaching. We found a cause that hit home for kids that go to these shows and they are definitely dealing with issues around suicide.”

What makes the Take Action Tour so successful is the attitude and stance of those behind the cause. They believe in giving something back and they follow through with their actions and make it part of who they are as people and a label. They believe in using their music not as mere entertainment, but as education as well. “It’s something we feel we have to do” says Posen. “Its part of our purpose as a label and our purpose in life to take all these hours and all the money that we spend and try to do something positive with it beyond entertainment. I think entertainment is a really good thing, it makes people enjoy life, but at the same time, you can be educating people on issues that they care about but might not know about.” 

The concept of giving back and raising awareness seems like an easy concept, but it’s something that not many other labels do. “I don’t know why (other labels don’t give back)”, says Posen. “To some people, they just don’t realize that maybe they can do it. It’s such a difficult business world out there, we all hear how the economy is tough, and so a lot of people are focused on survival and not on giving back, but what we try to do at Subcity is incorporate it so there is no difference between the two. As long as we’re surviving, we’re giving back, and I think everyone can find that.” In terms of laying down a foundation for other labels to follow, Hopeless/Subcity does an amazing job at this. When money and greed are overtaking the music industry, Subcity breaks from the norm and does things the right way. “Part of what we do with Subcity is to try to set an example for other companies and individuals to do the same thing. You don’t have to have a lot of money to do something charitable” states Posen.

Currently the Take Action Tour is making its rounds raising awareness and funds for suicide all over the country. The tour intertwines the message of suicide awareness and the entertainment very effectively. The bands appearing on the tour are Poison The Well, Dillinger Escape Plan, Shai Hulud, Avenged Sevenfold, and Further Seems Forever to name a few and when all is said and done, it’s the music on the tour that is the driving force behind raising suicide awareness. Many of the bands on the tour are of the hardcore/punk genre and Posen explains why this is the case, “It started with Poison The Well coming to the table first. Then other bands who they were friends with or look up to them wanting to be on a tour that they are associated with and a cause that they care about. I think other hardcore bands have followed Poison The Well’s lead.” Butler doesn’t just limit the tour to punk and hardcore but feels they relay the message the best, “We did not choose punk/hardcore at the exclusion of other genres. Specifically we are most proud of punk/hardcore as that genre is targeted at one of the highest risk groups for suicidal behavior and depression.”

The tour has helped out countless kids over the years; Posen and Butler hear positive feedback from them every day. “That’s why we do it” says Posen. “We get that positive feedback and it’s scary how much feedback we get. It does hit you hard when you read it. There’s a bittersweet thing there, the bitterness of realizing there are a lot of kids out there in trouble and need a place to turn, and the positive side is there is a place lucky enough. Sometimes, there isn’t a treatment or cure or a place, and in this case there is. There are 24-hour confidential hotlines that know how to deal with this and have the references to help you. There is a letter that always comes back to me.” Butler shares his feedback that he receives, “Every show I go to I end up connecting with many special people who have been touched by suicide and tell me how the work we are doing gives them hope.”

There is hope out there and sometimes it takes special people like Louis Posen and Reese Butler to rekindle it. Even though the Take Action Tour continues to improve and increase in raising awareness, the work will never stop.

Butler sums things up in the best way possible, “It is the most incredible feeling to know that my wife’s life and death had a far greater meaning than she even knew, and that my life and the entire Hopeline Network team has a higher purpose. Prior to starting the Hopeline I was adrift with no purpose in life. This work has become a mission and has consumed me and rewarded me with the greatest purpose for my life. To help others not go through the same pain and tragic loss that Kristin’s family and I went through.” If only God made more people like Louis Posen and Reese Butler.

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Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Culture

A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus

The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.

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In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:

“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.

There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.

While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.

Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.

Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.

Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”

Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.

The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.

In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.

Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.

I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.  

If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.

To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.

Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22         September 2019.

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