Monthly Archives: April 2014

Audra McDonald As Billie Holiday: The Importance Of Feeling It


Audra McDonald just nabbed a Tony nominations for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill.i i

hide captionAudra McDonald just nabbed a Tony nominations for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill.


Evgenia Eliseeva

Audra McDonald just nabbed a Tony nominations for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill.

Audra McDonald just nabbed a Tony nominations for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill.

Evgenia Eliseeva

Billie Holiday will not be singing unless she “feels it.” That’s practically her thesis statement in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Lanie Robertson’s play about a drug-ravaged nightclub show near the end of Holiday’s tortured life. War stories and bawdy jokes are never a problem—and neither is pouring a drink—but if the audience wants a show, they have to wait until Lady Day can give them something real.

Take away the booze and drugs, and you find a similar spirit in the show’s current Broadway production, appearing through August at Circle in the Square Theatre. Star Audra McDonald, who just this morning got a Tony nomination for her performance, has been widely praised for accurately imitating Holiday’s singing voice, but she and her director Lonny Price are just as committed to emotional authenticity.

“Not unlike Billie, I think Audra is incapable of falsity,” says Price, who has directed McDonald in several productions, including a 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade and this spring’s New York Philharmonic staging of Sweeney Todd. “She won’t settle, and if it’s not truthful to her, she won’t play it. I know she pushes me harder than other actors do, and I may push her harder than other directors do.”

McDonald agrees, and she feels her longstanding friendship with Price allows them to cut past formalities and get right to improving the work. “We know each other’s tricks,” she says. “He knows when I’m being lazy about something and saying, ‘Well, I don’t feel like working on this today.’ And if I feel that he’s going for something that feels too general, or if I’m not getting the specific note I need, I will push him until he gives me an answer we both agree on.”

That dynamic is especially useful in Lady Day. Though Robertson provides a structure for Holiday’s gig at the titular Philly dive—she tells increasingly revealing stories as she ingests increasingly harmful substances—he leaves the creative team plenty of interpretive room. “When you read the play in script form, it’s one long paragraph with songs,” McDonald says, meaning there aren’t a lot of stage directions to suggest how scenes should be played.

Plus, the show’s 13 numbers—including “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”—are classics from Holiday’s repertoire, not musical theatre tunes. “That’s really the biggest challenge of the piece,” Price says. “In a show where songs don’t reveal character and certainly don’t move the plot, it’s about getting that character to a place where those songs feel inevitable.”

In other words, Price and McDonald have to clarify why Billie is “feeling” each number before she sings it, or nobody is going to be satisfied.

Take the jaunty ditty “Pig Foot (and Bottle of Beer)”: McDonald croons it while she’s in the audience, right after chatting up the crowd. (The theatre is designed like an actual club, with many patrons seated at café tables and drinking cocktails during the show.)

“We did that so she can get excited to be in the audience,” Price explains. “She feels good to be around people who like her, and being in the middle of them, she thinks, ‘Let’s have a party! Let’s sing ‘Pig Foot!’ Now, she could sing ‘Pig Foot’ from the stage, and maybe there’d be another way to get her there. But her being around those people creates a party atmosphere that’s believable for a silly, celebratory song.”

That’s not the only time Holiday draws on her fans. She constantly talks and flirts with them to find inspiration for the next moment. “My biggest partner every night is the audience,” McDonald says. “That’s who she’s afraid of. That’s who she’s wanting love from.”

As a performer, it requires an enormous amount of faith to interact with the audience during a scripted show. There’s no guarantee they’ll respond in a certain way, but marks still have to be hit and songs still have to be sung. McDonald must stay responsive and alert, finding reactions that will both acknowledge what the audience is doing and create a truthful transition to the next scene.

“This is not a show that lets me drift away mentally, because I never have any idea what I’m going to get,” she explains. “As Lonny says, it’s like the audience is my co-star and there’s a new understudy on in the part every night. But that’s why I’ve leaned on him to make sure I know what my ‘verb’ is for every single beat of this. What does she want? Why is she doing this?”

And besides, interacting with the crowd adds even more authenticity to her performance as a nightclub singer in a bar and grill. “We accept any and all reactions in this show,” McDonald says. “Because that’s real life. That certainly would have been real life for Billie Holiday in this particular moment.

Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages (https://stages.tdf.org) and tweets as @IAmBlankenship

Book News: Harper Lee Agrees To E-Book Version Of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’


To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007.i i

hide captionTo Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007.


Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007.

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Harper Lee has agreed to release To Kill a Mockingbird, her only published book, as an e-book. “I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries,” the reclusive 88-year-old author said in a statement, adding, “I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.” The e-book, together with an audiobook narrated by Sissy Spacek, will be released July 8 by HarperCollins. A few other classic books are still holding out against e-book versions — J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a notable example. Lee sued her literary agent Samuel Pinkus last year, saying he took advantage of her poor health to trick her into signing over the rights to her book. The lawsuit was settled in September.
  • On the BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour, J.K. Rowling says her mother never knew about Harry Potter: “My mother was a passionate reader, and she would have been excited whatever I did, if I succeeded at anything, but particularly to be a writer, she would have considered to be a very valuable thing,” adding, “she never knew about Harry Potter — I started writing it six months before she died, so that is painful. I wish she’d known.”
  • For The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey collects some of the most famous parentheses in literature, and looks at the ways they’re used to (literally) bracket pain. He cites what might be the most famous one, from Nabokov’s Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory.”
  • In an interview in Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin compared his gory, hack-happy plotlines to quieter modern forms of warfare: “Taking human life should always be a very serious thing. There’s something very close up about the Middle Ages. You’re taking a sharp piece of steel and hacking at someone’s head, and you’re getting spattered with his blood, and you’re hearing his screams. In some ways maybe it’s more brutal that we’ve insulated ourselves from that. We’re setting up mechanisms where we can kill human beings with drones and missiles where you’re sitting at a console and pressing the button. We never have to hear their whimpering, or hear them begging for their mother, or dying in horrible realities around us. I don’t know if that’s necessarily such a good thing.”

‘Nothing More To Lose’ Forges A Connection To Palestine


Nothing More to Lose

Roughly halfway through Najwan Darwish’s Nothing More to Lose, wiping awkwardly at tears and trying self-consciously not to sob with my partner in the room, I found myself wondering what someone with no connection to Palestine would make of it.

I grew up with the conflict. I have never not been aware of it. I was born in Canada to parents who left Lebanon during the Civil War, and raised with the understanding that there was an unfairness in the world that touched us, our friends, our family. Poets, artists, engineers, builders, former soldiers — I learned that no one who came to visit our home lacked an opinion connected to an experience connected, always, in some way to Palestine.

So I am trying, now, to imagine someone reading it whose life does not have a conflict-shaped wound built into it, into which Darwish’s words fall like painful, purifying salt. I am trying to imagine a lover of poetry picking up this book and opening it, a blank slate, allowing Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation to inscribe itself on their thoughts as they learn, in poetry’s slantwise way, about Gaza, Bint Jbeil, Sabra and Shatila.

Here is what I think they would find: a collection of very short poems — often no more than a page — speaking of love, sorrow, loss, hope and despair in a voice simultaneously so passionate and so matter-of-fact that it stops the breath.

Nothing More to Lose contains poems written between 2000 and 2014, covering a wide range of emotional experience, and curated into a shapely whole with recognizable movements. It opens with the title poem, which is an invitation into the collection and a map toward the reading of it, all while providing a good metaphor for the way Abu-Zeid has managed these translations:

Lay your head on my chest and listen

to the layers of ruins

behind the madrasah of Saladin

hear the houses sliced open

in the village of Lifta

The translation is astonishingly dexterous, to the point where several poems read as if they’d been written in English. Abu-Zeid has a wonderful ear for rhythm, and a fine sense of effect when choosing which Arabic words to preserve in the midst of English text. Key lines even retain the rhythm of the Arabic: in “Jerusalem II,” “the murdered hum their poems on the hills” renders the iambic pentameter of the orignal al qutla yasjiloun 3alat tilal. Abu-Zeid also succeeds in representing much of Darwish’s lyric playfulness: look at how “lay your head” is echoed in “layers,” how “my chest” anticipates “sliced open,” how successful is the conflation of heart and home on literal and metaphorical levels.

Indeed, you could say this is a collection of ruins layered between heartbeats and you would not be far wrong.

These poems range far and wide in subject, place, time: There are evocations of Rio de Janeiro as well as Jerusalem, Jesus and Saladin as well as contemporary politicians and friends. Musings on and examinations of identity, especially “Arab” identity, inform many of these pieces; there is an awareness, too, of history as a character and a setting, as a contested space that is both nightmare and testament. But throughout this variety Darwish’s singular, wonderful voice — a voice flexible and confident enough to be capable of celebrating and lamenting, joking and condemning, often in the same poem — unites and animates them all.

While the breadth of subject matter is considerable, Darwish’s poems are often focused on very specific moments, names and monuments; recognizing that, there is a helpful selection of notes at the end (though the text itself is unmarked), offering poem-by-poem contexts and explanations for pieces that require more specialized knowledge to support their full effect. But I never felt that a poem’s effect was lost without them; one does not need to know anything about Bint Jbeil to feel, keenly, the guilt and awe in “the debt I now owed / to those who hoisted dawn for one more day / over the hills of Bint Jbeil,” or to marvel at the precision with which Darwish articulates our distance from those who suffer more than us.

This is a collection of heartbreak, encompassing the whole of that experience: the pain of the wound, the numbness in its wake, the sardonic attitude developed like an oyster’s silk around a grain of sand to make the agony bearable. But it is also, crucially, a loving collection: Even in poems that seem to despair there is a fierce, almost violent love — for people, for poetry, for place.

I should warn you, perhaps, imaginary reader whose life differs so much from mine — whatever your views, politics, past experiences or lack of them — it will be impossible, by the time you have finished reading this collection, to escape a connection to Palestine.

Sandwich Monday: The Poutine Burger


Putting Canada on top of America is both delicious and geographically accurate.i i

hide captionPutting Canada on top of America is both delicious and geographically accurate.


NPR

Putting Canada on top of America is both delicious and geographically accurate.

Putting Canada on top of America is both delicious and geographically accurate.

NPR

Poutine, if you don’t know, is a Canadian dish made up of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. And if you don’t know, you really haven’t been living your life to its fullest. Seriously, what have you been doing? Go get some poutine. Then come back and read about this poutine burger — an open-face hamburger topped with poutine — we ate from Spritzburger in Chicago. We’ll wait. We have to. We can’t move.

The onion ring makes a great side dish and numerical representation of how many years you have left to live.i i

hide captionThe onion ring makes a great side dish and numerical representation of how many years you have left to live.


NPR

The onion ring makes a great side dish and numerical representation of how many years you have left to live.

The onion ring makes a great side dish and numerical representation of how many years you have left to live.

NPR

Ian: I always wonder why poutine hasn’t caught on here in the U.S., and I think it’s because you can’t drive while eating it.

Miles: But, by God, we can try

Ian: You don’t want to get busted for Driving Under The Influence of Poutine, though. “Sir, can you step out of the car?” “No. No, I physically can’t.”

Canada, we're sorry for everything we ever said about you.i i

hide captionCanada, we’re sorry for everything we ever said about you.


NPR

Canada, we're sorry for everything we ever said about you.

Canada, we’re sorry for everything we ever said about you.

NPR

Ian: It’s like I’ve died and gone to Canada.

Peter: The correct Canadian pronunciation is, “Sorry, it’s a poutine burger.”

Miles: Which part of the maple tree does gravy come from?

It took a lot of willpower to pause eating long enough to take this picture.i i

hide captionIt took a lot of willpower to pause eating long enough to take this picture.


NPR

It took a lot of willpower to pause eating long enough to take this picture.

It took a lot of willpower to pause eating long enough to take this picture.

NPR

Peter: This burger represents the best of America and Canada coming together. It’s like a polite drone attack.

Miles: It’s amazing how soaking things in gravy inherently makes them better. Has anyone else watched Battlefield Earth soaked in gravy? It’s incredible.

Lorna: With the wayward fries on top, it looks like a bridge collapse. A delicious bridge collapse.

All of us here were flummoxed by these "knife" and "fork" contraptions required for this sandwich.i i

hide captionAll of us here were flummoxed by these “knife” and “fork” contraptions required for this sandwich.


NPR

All of us here were flummoxed by these "knife" and "fork" contraptions required for this sandwich.

All of us here were flummoxed by these “knife” and “fork” contraptions required for this sandwich.

NPR

[The verdict: It’s poutine on top of a burger. There is honestly no way to do this badly. Well worth the copious belly space it requires.]

Sandwich Monday is a satirical feature from the humorists at Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

For Alan Cumming, Life Is (Once Again) A Cabaret


Alan Cumming describes his costume in Cabaret as "almost a cantilever system to hike up my manhood, if you will. ... It's sort of like a Wonder Bra for the male junk."

hide captionAlan Cumming describes his costume in Cabaret as “almost a cantilever system to hike up my manhood, if you will. … It’s sort of like a Wonder Bra for the male junk.”


Joan Marcus/Polk & Co./AP

Alan Cumming has starred in the musical Cabaret three times — a 1993 London production, a Tony-winning 1998 Broadway revival, and a new Broadway revival — and it hasn’t gotten old. “It’s so energetic, and it just takes up every single element of being an actor,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

Cumming plays the master of ceremonies in a debaucherous Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. The role was originated by Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 Broadway production as well as the 1972 movie.

“It goes back to my stand-up comedy roots,” Cumming says. “I engage with the audience and ad-lib with the audience, and that’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.”

Cabaret is set in 1929 and 1930. The Nazis are slowly emerging, and no one yet knows how powerful they will become. Only some people sense the danger in the air — and Cumming says the audience becomes complicit in their enjoyment of the show, while outside the club Hitler is coming to power.

This is the third time Alan Cumming has starred in Cabaret. Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and co-directed the new one.i i

hide captionThis is the third time Alan Cumming has starred in Cabaret. Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and co-directed the new one.


Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

This is the third time Alan Cumming has starred in Cabaret. Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and co-directed the new one.

This is the third time Alan Cumming has starred in Cabaret. Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and co-directed the new one.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Interview Highlights

On the larger message of Cabaret

The reason we’re doing it again is that it has something to say. It’s about the rise of Nazism and the fact that if you’re not incredibly vigilant, oppression of some kind can slowly creep up and take over. I think the way that the show is fun and sexy and hilarious — then it slowly goes dark, you, as an audience member have kind of become complicit in that, and that mirrors the way you see Nazism creeping in. People think, “Oh, it’ll be fine, don’t worry, it’ll go away.” And then slowly it doesn’t, and then it’s too late.

On how the current Broadway production differs from the 1998 production

It’s very much darker, I think partly because I’m older but also because the sex element of the show — the thing in 1998 when we came to America [that] was so shocking and took up so much of people’s perception of the whole show was the depiction of sexual freedom and hedonism and gay sex and bisexuality and all sorts of things. That, I think in a way, took over a little too much, and now, I think, partly because of that production and partly because a lot has changed … it’s still fun and still very much what the story is about, but it doesn’t overshadow everything.

On his own sexuality

I used to be married to a woman. Before that I had had a relationship with a man. I then had another relationship with a woman, and I since then have had relationships with men. I still would define myself as bisexual partly because that’s how I feel but also because I think it’s important to — I think sexuality in this country especially is seen as a very black and white thing, and I think we should encourage the gray. You know?

I don’t go around in my life thinking, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to have sex with a woman soon because I said I was bisexual!” … It’s like saying you’re straight or you’re gay — it’s just what you are, and whatever you’re doing in your life it runs obviously parallel, but it’s kind of secondary to how you are inside. That’s how I’ve always felt, and I still do, even though I’m very happily married to a really amazing man and wish to be so for the rest of my life.

On the body hair in Cabaret

The girls have got to have hairy armpits — that’s part of the down and dirty thing of the club. I have extensive hair under my arms. I’m aware of that. It’s actually annoying. … I’m not a hairy person. I’ve longed to have a hairy chest … I seem to have all my hair in my armpits, and actually it seems to cause great consternation to people. …

I think this obsession we have in our culture with shaving — taking away body hair on men and women — I think it’s really dangerous, it’s like wanting to infantilize yourself and wanting to make something sexy that is not adult, it’s more prepubescent, and I think that’s really weird and dangerous, don’t you?

On his outfit to opening night

You know that Otto Dix painting [Portrait of the Journalist] Sylvia von Harden? It’s like a lady sitting at a table in a cafe, she’s got a cocktail and a little cigarette case, she’s smoking. She’s got a black-and-red checked dress on and a little short haircut and a monocle, I assume she’s a lesbian, but I may be wrong. … I decided that I would do my own thing and have a modern interpretation of an image that is very much an inspiration for the production. We have those images of Otto Dix all over the walls, and [George] Grosz and all those painters. … I’m going to go as that painting.

I think it’s great, but by the time this is broadcast you’ll have read how nuts I am, and how crazy people think I am, and I’ll be in the back of those awful trashy magazines [with] the fashion police, but I don’t care. I like it.

John Oliver Does His Best ‘Daily Show’ Impression For HBO


John Oliver's new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted Sunday on HBO.i i

hide captionJohn Oliver’s new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted Sunday on HBO.


Eric Liebowitz/HBO

John Oliver's new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted Sunday on HBO.

John Oliver’s new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted Sunday on HBO.

Eric Liebowitz/HBO

Fans who worried that John Oliver’s new HBO program might somehow diminish his legacy at The Daily Show can rest easy.

Because apparently he’s decided to copy it.

That doesn’t mean Sunday’s debut of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver wasn’t funny, because it was. Sitting behind an expansive desk with a city skyline at his back, Oliver uncorked a relentless load of telling barbs about the dysfunctional collision of media and politics, lambasting cable networks for speculating endlessly about 2016 presidential elections instead of covering the largest election in human history underway right now in India.

But it was also a half-hour of the wisecracks-on-news-coverage-made-to-look-like-a-newscast that The Daily Show has perfected.

We all knew Oliver was hired by HBO after his stellar stint filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last year. And in Last Week Tonight, it appears that HBO has pretty much bought that program, right down to the in-your-face pre-taped interviews guaranteed to make the subject look like an uneasy participant in a joke where they’re not quite sure of the punch line.

The honor of inaugural patsy went to former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander, who faced questions from Oliver about the agency’s controversial spying programs, like: “Do you think the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people … bearing in mind that the answer to that is yes?”

Alexander eventually played along gamely, agreeing they could rebrand the NSA as “the only agency in government that really listens.” There wasn’t much information to be had here; the interview was mostly just a platform for Oliver to launch finely tuned barbs, the same way he did for seven years on The Daily Show.

Indeed, the HBO show’s format mirrored The Daily Show‘s pacing, with comedy bits from behind the desk interspersed with pre-taped gags. These pre-taped bits — one featured Sen. John McCain telling the same joke about Russia being “a gas station masquerading as a country” in six different media interviews — often seemed placed where commercials would normally fall if it aired on a basic cable channel. Like, perhaps, Comedy Central.

Another plus for Oliver on HBO: Along with the lack of commercials, there’s a lack of censorship. So the f-word appeared in its full, unbleeped glory several times not only in Oliver’s copy, but in a sign held up behind singer Lisa Loeb while she performed in a parody music video lambasting Oregon for spending $248 million on an Obamacare website that doesn’t work. (“We flew in Lisa Loeb to tell you to go f – – – yourselves, Oregon,” Oliver crowed.)

But the bit also revealed a telling secret: Sometimes bleeping the curse words is even funnier than hearing them.

Still, Oliver presented a consistently entertaining half-hour that took shots at everything from Sunday’s elevation of two popes to sainthood (“The papal sainthood equivalent of a KFC double down.”) to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist tirades against his girlfriend for taking selfies with black people (“Genuinely shocking: An 80-year-old man knows about Instagram.”)

But some of us fans couldn’t help a little disappointment that the talented British comic didn’t come up with a different showcase for his talents that reinvented a bit more of the formula developed by his ex-boss.

Because, as much as some Daily Show junkies might welcome a weekend edition on Sundays, what late-night TV really needs is a fresh way to tell a few new stories.

New Film ‘All About Ann’ Looks At The Life Of A Texan Leader


Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It’s been 20 years since a Democrat was elected to a statewide office in Texas. And that year – 1994 – also marks the year when the state’s last Democratic governor was voted out. But what a character she was.

Born during the Great Depression, she was a housewife, a teacher, a volunteer and a political liberal who somehow managed to be elected to lead one of the country’s most conservative states – all this with her trademark sense of humor front and center. Here she is giving the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1988 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION)

ANN RICHARDS: I’m delighted to be here with you this evening because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.

MARTIN: Who could we be talking about but Ann Richards. Today, HBO premieres a documentary about Ann Richards. It’s called “All About Ann: Governor Richards Of The Lone Star State.

Joining us to tell us more is Cecile Richards. She is Ann Richards daughter and you might know her as president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. And she’s with us now from our studios in New York City. Cecile Richards, thank you so much for joining us.

CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely, delighted to do this.

MARTIN: Did you think your mother was funny?

C. RICHARDS: Oh, she was funny. I think it’s actually sort of undeniable, but it’s different when she’s your mom ’cause I think it – sometimes it can almost verge on the embarrassing. But what you saw in public is what you saw in private. She was very, very much her own person and a lot of fun as a mom.

MARTIN: Was she fun as a mom because – I mean, she was a big personality and sometimes, as you mentioned, for kids that can be fun, it can also be kind of embarrassing?

C. RICHARDS: I know, I actually think the time she came to pick me up when I flew home for college and she was just as Dolly Parton – that probably was the height of embarrassment. But no, I think in general, look, she was someone who loved life. And she lived big. And I think as a kid I now – I sort of recognize our family wasn’t necessarily like other families, but it was pretty wonderful.

MARTIN: Your mom was ahead of her time in many ways. I mean, one of the things that you can’t help but notice. It’s one thing for her to have been the person she is right now, but she’s the person she was when it was kind of difficult in a lot of communities that she was living in and working in to have her point of view and to have to take on the issues that she took on.

Do you know where that came from? As we mentioned, I mean, she was a person who was an activist, you know, for women, for people of color, for LGBT individuals at a time when this was not easy to do. Do you know where that came from in her spirit?

C. RICHARDS: Well, you know, it’s funny – I grew up in Dallas, Texas, which was a very conservative city at the time. And sort of – my folks, as mom described it, they were into politics like other couples were into bowling. Every movement that came through town, whether it was the farm workers, the labor movement, the women’s movement, they were into and so were all their friends.

And I think it just became part of their life. And once she finished being a mom or at least had raised all of us, she got to throw all of her energy into politics, but came from a point of view of really that politics was there to do social good and for social justice. And I think that is also something that set her apart sometimes from other politicians.

MARTIN: A lot of people who may not be familiar with her record in Texas will certainly remember her – if they follow politics at all – from the 1988 Democratic National Convention where she gave the keynote speech. And as the documentary highlights, it was kind of a turning point in her career. Would you agree with that?

C. RICHARDS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, she was already on the scene in Texas, but it was really that speech and at that opportunity to, as she would say, sort of show what she could do, to a national audience that really allowed her to make the race for governor and ultimately win that election.

MARTIN: Well, let’s play a little bit of the speech for people who may not remember it. And here – this might be what some people might call the money bite.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1988 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION)

A. RICHARDS: George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about. And now that he’s after a job that he can’t get appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America. He’s found childcare. He’s found education. Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Now, I remember that speech and certainly remember the campaign. And I remember that there were actually kind of mixed feelings about it because on the one hand, people in the hall loved it, but there were other people who thought it was kind of mean and in a way that it a little – backfired. What do you think?

C. RICHARDS: Well, she definitely skated on the edge. And I think, you know, humor can kind of go both ways. She in general I think was very effective at using humor to disarm people. And again, as you said earlier, you know, she was trying to get elected in a state that was much more conservative than her politics were. I mean, it’s a populous state I think in many ways. But she definitely had to – she had to engage people, and I think she did.

MARTIN: She did run for governor. And as we mentioned, she won. It was a brutal campaign. I think we can agree with that, right?

C. RICHARDS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: The fact that she has struggled with alcoholism was something that she talked about during the campaign, not as if she had a choice. Talk to me about that – the campaign kind of from the inside-out. How did she feel about it?

C. RICHARDS: Well, it was a brutal campaign for sure. I mean, she was the first woman to run in that kind of race and the gloves were off. Of course, the film, the HBO film, the documentary really captures that and I think it does a very good job of demonstrating what it was like to run as a woman and certainly as a divorced woman, as a woman who was a recovering alcoholic, someone who had been very public about her addiction.

But, boy, it opened her up for a lot of public scrutiny. And it was a tough race, but she was never one to shy away from a fight. And I think that’s also why people remember her. She was, as she would say, you kind of had to take her warts and all. And people in Texas, at least for a while, they did. And she was very popular as governor.

MARTIN: She was popular, but couldn’t get reelected.

C. RICHARDS: Right.

MARTIN: And I wonder, looking back on it, did she see her tenure as a success or not?

C. RICHARDS: She definitely changed the face of public officials and of the state government in Texas. And for her that was very important. You know, she appointed more women, more minorities, more openly gay and lesbian people than ever before. In fact, I think more than all the previous governors combined. And a lot of the folks that she appointed to office or who worked in her administration are now leaders in their own right, both in Texas and around the country. I think, to me, that’s a huge mark of making something happen in four, what seemed to be very short, years.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from this documentary?

C. RICHARDS: Well, I think one – obviously it’s exciting that women and men would learn about mom, a lot of young people who probably never knew her. And I think she shows in this one that you can be amazingly resilient in this life even when you hit some bumps, which she absolutely did.

And probably what she would want people to understand from this is that public service is a noble thing. It’s a good thing. And that you can, whether you’re in public office or you’re in – doing other things for social justice, you can have a really good life and help people along the way.

MARTIN: Some people might feel opposite, though. I mean, there’s always this debate about why doesn’t more women, particularly younger women, don’t get into public life – and some people say it’s the nastiness of it.

And having to – the fact that she struggled with alcohol was a – did, you know, master her addiction but was a recovering alcoholic was something that she had to discuss in the course of the campaign and no getting around it. You know, some people would look at that and think I don’t want that. What do you think she would say to that?

C. RICHARDS: Well, I think she’d say, look, you know, you have one chance to really make a difference in your life and it may not be for everyone but it’s a great chance. And, you know, I think she was always concerned that too many women did sort of take themselves out of the equation, whether it was the public scrutiny or just simply that they never thought they had the right skills or the degree or that their children were too little. There’s a million reasons I think that women hold back.

And she was just a big believer that you really had to go for it, and you had to go for every opportunity that you had as a woman. And I think that would be the message that she would give to young women today. And look, you can look at Congress now, it’s amazing the difference that women in both the Senate and the House are making, and not only on behalf of women, but on behalf of a lot of, I think, social causes that we all believe in.

MARTIN: Cecile Richards is the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She’s also the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards. HBO is premiering a documentary about Ann Richards today. It is called “All About Ann: Governor Richards Of The Lone Star State.” You’ll want to check your local listings for exact times. Cecile Richards, thanks so much for speaking with us.

C. RICHARDS: Michel, great to be with you.

MARTIN: And that’s our program for today. I’m Michel Martin, and you’ve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let’s talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR’s prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Book News: Tilting At Windmills? Radar Used To Search For Cervantes’ Remains


Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.i i

hide captionTechnicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.


Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.

Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.

Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • A team of scholars and technicians in Spain are using radar to search for the burial place of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated writer. The author of Don Quixote died in 1616 and was buried at the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas in Madrid, but no one knows the exact spot. Reporting from Spain, Lauren Frayer tells NPR’s Newscast Desk that “the nuns are making way for technicians using ground-penetrating radar” to search for the remains of the man often compared to Shakespeare because of the massive scope of his influence. She adds, “Cervantes served in the Spanish navy and survived a gunshot wound to his chest. He had only six teeth, and a crippled left hand — details that could help scientists identify his body.” The search will focus on the ground and walls of the oldest part of the convent, according to the BBC. It quotes search leader Luis Avial as saying, “The radar cannot tell you whether it is the body of the writer, but it can indicate the place of burial.”
  • Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and dozens of other celebrated authors have signed a letter protesting the imprisonment of Uighur writer and economist Ilham Tohti in China. Tohti, who teaches at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing and founded the website Uighur Online, was detained in January and later charged with separatism. The letter, printed in The Guardian, reads: “We understand that he could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty if convicted on this baseless charge. … Mr Tohti founded Uighur Online with the express purpose of promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he has never advocated violence or promoted a political agenda. Instead, his website has served as a critically important counterpoint to the aggressive measures that Xi Jinping’s administration has imposed against the Uighur people in the name of stability. Without dialogue, there can be no stability.” Tohti has been detained several times in the past few years for criticizing China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.
  • Today in neat things on the Internet: a medieval manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, known as the “Hengwrt Chaucer.” Now online in its entirety, you can scroll through and look at the gorgeous script, as well as the spiky, gilded floral borders on the first page.
  • German-Jewish novelist Stefanie Zweig, author of the autobiographical novel Nowhere in Africa, has died, her nephew told the German news agency DPA. She was 81. Nowhere in Africa, her most famous novel, closely mirrors the story of her family, which, fearing the Nazis, fled Germany in the years leading up to WWII. They moved to Kenya, where Zweig went to a British school. “Nowhere in Africa was published in 1995,” Zweig wrote in an essay in The Guardian. “Till then I had no idea that I had remembered every scene of my childhood. Although I had been to Kenya twice and knew that I still spoke Swahili, I was astonished how the language flooded my memory while writing.”

Notable Books Coming Out This Week:

  • The Informed Air, a collection of odds and ends from the writings of Muriel Spark, swings from contemplations of the afterlife (“Oh God, imagine yourself in a celestial omnibus next to Billy Graham! Far rather would I reside in the shady groves of the pagan outsiders”) to a reverie on the merits of cats. She writes, “I cannot speak highly enough of the cat, its casual freedom of spirit, its aloof anarchism and its marvelous beauty. The Greeks, observing its fearful symmetry in motion, called the cat ailouros — a wave of the sea. Nothing restores the soul so much as the contemplation of a cat. In repose, it is like a lotus leaf. Its contentment is mystical; anatomists have still not discovered what or where the cat’s purr-box is. To my mind, the flower and consummation of the species was my late cat, Bluebell.” Has there been a more charming ode to a dead cat since Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes“? The Informed Air is full of these small delights.
  • Jen Doll’s Save The Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest is a frustrating memoir about weddings, of which Doll has attended dozens, written in a gushy just-between-us-girls style. It’s easy to imagine how a better version of this book could be charming, even Austen-esque, if Doll were a sharper social observer. But as it is, we are supposed to find stories about getting drunk and saying mean things to her friends funny and relatable. We’re told that the decorating scheme of one friend’s wedding overdid it with the shades of blue, and the exact cost of the shoes she drunkenly threw at a car while leaving another’s nuptials. But we’re never offered a good reason to keep reading a book that mostly feels like a long complaint about having to attend too many fancy parties. On the subject of bridal showers, she asks, “Is there anything worse than having to feign enthrallment over a bunch of brownie tins?” Well, yes, maybe one or two things.

Book News: Tilting At Windmills? Radar Used To Search For Cervantes’ Remains


Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.i i

hide captionTechnicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.


Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.

Technicians sweep an area of the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas using ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes four centuries after his death.

Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • A team of scholars and technicians in Spain are using radar to search for the burial place of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated writer. The author of Don Quixote died in 1616 and was buried at the Convent of las Trinitarias Descalzas in Madrid, but no one knows the exact spot. Reporting from Spain, Lauren Frayer tells NPR’s Newscast Desk that “the nuns are making way for technicians using ground-penetrating radar” to search for the remains of the man often compared to Shakespeare because of the massive scope of his influence. She adds, “Cervantes served in the Spanish navy and survived a gunshot wound to his chest. He had only six teeth, and a crippled left hand — details that could help scientists identify his body.” The search will focus on the ground and walls of the oldest part of the convent, according to the BBC. It quotes search leader Luis Avial as saying, “The radar cannot tell you whether it is the body of the writer, but it can indicate the place of burial.”
  • Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and dozens of other celebrated authors have signed a letter protesting the imprisonment of Uighur writer and economist Ilham Tohti in China. Tohti, who teaches at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing and founded the website Uighur Online, was detained in January and later charged with separatism. The letter, printed in The Guardian, reads: “We understand that he could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty if convicted on this baseless charge. … Mr Tohti founded Uighur Online with the express purpose of promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he has never advocated violence or promoted a political agenda. Instead, his website has served as a critically important counterpoint to the aggressive measures that Xi Jinping’s administration has imposed against the Uighur people in the name of stability. Without dialogue, there can be no stability.” Tohti has been detained several times in the past few years for criticizing China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.
  • Today in neat things on the Internet: a medieval manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, known as the “Hengwrt Chaucer.” Now online in its entirety, you can scroll through and look at the gorgeous script, as well as the spiky, gilded floral borders on the first page.
  • German-Jewish novelist Stefanie Zweig, author of the autobiographical novel Nowhere in Africa, has died, her nephew told the German news agency DPA. She was 81. Nowhere in Africa, her most famous novel, closely mirrors the story of her family, which, fearing the Nazis, fled Germany in the years leading up to WWII. They moved to Kenya, where Zweig went to a British school. “Nowhere in Africa was published in 1995,” Zweig wrote in an essay in The Guardian. “Till then I had no idea that I had remembered every scene of my childhood. Although I had been to Kenya twice and knew that I still spoke Swahili, I was astonished how the language flooded my memory while writing.”

Notable Books Coming Out This Week:

  • The Informed Air, a collection of odds and ends from the writings of Muriel Spark, swings from contemplations of the afterlife (“Oh God, imagine yourself in a celestial omnibus next to Billy Graham! Far rather would I reside in the shady groves of the pagan outsiders”) to a reverie on the merits of cats. She writes, “I cannot speak highly enough of the cat, its casual freedom of spirit, its aloof anarchism and its marvelous beauty. The Greeks, observing its fearful symmetry in motion, called the cat ailouros — a wave of the sea. Nothing restores the soul so much as the contemplation of a cat. In repose, it is like a lotus leaf. Its contentment is mystical; anatomists have still not discovered what or where the cat’s purr-box is. To my mind, the flower and consummation of the species was my late cat, Bluebell.” Has there been a more charming ode to a dead cat since Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes“? The Informed Air is full of these small delights.
  • Jen Doll’s Save The Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest is a frustrating memoir about weddings, of which Doll has attended dozens, written in a gushy just-between-us-girls style. It’s easy to imagine how a better version of this book could be charming, even Austen-esque, if Doll were a sharper social observer. But as it is, we are supposed to find stories about getting drunk and saying mean things to her friends funny and relatable. We’re told that the decorating scheme of one friend’s wedding overdid it with the shades of blue, and the exact cost of the shoes she drunkenly threw at a car while leaving another’s nuptials. But we’re never offered a good reason to keep reading a book that mostly feels like a long complaint about having to attend too many fancy parties. On the subject of bridal showers, she asks, “Is there anything worse than having to feign enthrallment over a bunch of brownie tins?” Well, yes, maybe one or two things.