How is your Monday going? Me, I just have a little case of whiplash. Other than that it’s another fine day in the working world.
No worries, folks. I don’t have real whiplash from a car accident. I have the emotional whiplash that results when life presents startling contrasts in very different contexts. Let me explain.
Yesterday PW and I went to see Speakeasy Stage’s production of Neil LaBute’s play “reasons to be pretty.” As part of Speakeasy’s “Spirituality and the Arts” talkback series, PW and Rabbi Berman take the stage after one of the Sunday matinee performances of each play in Speakeasy’s season, to lead a talkback on the religious, ethical, and spiritual themes of the play. I love these talkbacks. They give the audience members (as well as cast and crew members) who stay behind an opportunity to sit with the play a little longer, to reflect on it while it’s still fresh.
“reasons to be pretty” begins in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out, dog-eat-dog, vicious, malicious argument between a young couple who have been together for four years. The woman is enraged because her best friend has just called to tell her about overhearing the boyfriend describe her face as “regular.” The rest of the play involves watching two couples deal with the ripple effect of this comment, and how people’s reactions to it destroy some relationships and strengthen others.
Apparently “reasons to be pretty” is the third play of LaBute’s trilogy on our culture’s obsession with beauty and appearance, particularly that of women. It’s hard to watch, like any art that holds up a mirror to the things about our selves and our culture that we’d rather not look at or be reminded of.
The whiplash occurred when I came into work this morning to an email broadcast from our hospital president’s office. The email announced that sometime last week a team from our hospital completed the first-ever full face transplant conducted in the US. When confronted with images of a man who essentially didn’t have a face at all, I found myself thinking completely differently about the linchpin of LaBute’s play: the insult of being described as having “a regular face.”
My communications team assembled in a conference room at 11 am this morning to watch a live webcast of the press conference, which included most of the more than 30 people who worked for more than 15 hours to replace the facial area of a man who lost most of his face when it came in contact with an electrical power line a couple of years ago.
During the press conference, the lead surgeon spoke, almost in passing, about how appearance is one of the ways we communicate, and how important our faces are to communication. Then he told a story about a man who has received numerous reconstructive procedures at this hospital over the years, after enduring a disfiguring accident. When the doctor asked why he continues to undergo these painful procedures, the patient replied, “One of these days, I just want a cab to stop for me, instead of passing me by.”
At the press conference this morning, the transplant recipient’s grandfather gave a statement. He closed his remarks by saying that ever since his grandson was first injured, his refrain has been “I can choose to get bitter or I can choose to get better. I choose to get better.”
I think I would have been moved by those comments anyway, but they were almost too much to bear while the themes and words of LaBute’s play are still echoing in my head.
It’s not unusual to make or hear comments about putting on a new face. I’ve heard many women refer to putting on makeup as “putting on my face.” Starting today, the face has a whole new meaning for me—regardless of whether it could be described as “regular” or superior or plain or perfect. Starting today, a young man in a hospital room a few blocks from here has a new face, thanks to his own courage, the ingenuity of the medical community, and the extraordinary generosity of the donor’s family.
This brings me to today’s Psalm/Psong. Last year, Bettye LaVette released an album of interpretations of the British Rock songbook. We first heard her this past New Year’s Eve, at a free concert in Symphony Hall, as part of Boston’s “First Night” celebration. When she introduced one of the songs at that show, she talked at length about how many of the songs on this record were her “nemeses” when she first heard them.
Apparently, the British Rock boom brought on by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others of that ilk, eclipsed many of the black artists who were her heroes when she was growing up (she’s in her mid-60s now, with grandchildren). She described that era as being like waking up in an alternate universe, where, one day, she couldn’t find any black artists on the radio stations of her native Detroit, because everyone was playing the British rock of white boys who were, for the most part, inspired by black R&B and blues singers. There are plenty of interviews, both printed and on video, where LaVette speaks movingly about wrestling with these songs to figure out how to make peace with them and make them her own.
It’s tough to pick just one of these Psongs, and when I started writing this I had already picked out her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth.” However, the course of my morning has changed my mood. So today’s Psalm/Psong is Bettye LaVette’s goosebumpy cover of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Here’s a shout-out to my in-law Billy, who last week posted a comment here that included a video The Who performing this song. This particular video is from the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony of 2008, where The Who was recognized for their contributions to music. The bonus: you get to hear LaVette sing and watch Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend respond to her rendition.
Happy Monday to you and your faces. May love reign and rain all over you.