Curses! Foiled Again! Witches In Pop Culture: PeaceBang Reviews “American Horror Story: Coven”

I named myself a Witch way back in fourth grade. It wasn’t just because I was obsessed with “Bewitched,” which I was (Endora was my girl — Samantha was cute, but didn’t interest me any more than Disney princesses interested me. Maleficent, now she interested me). It was because I was a witch and I knew it. I was in touch with the Unseen realm and I knew how to read it and even sort of how to manipulate it. I read everything I could find about witches and witchcraft and the paranormal. There wasn’t a lot. There was nothing in my school library about other cultures or shamanic traditions, for example, that might have shed some light on what I was experiencing. I did my best to educate myself with books of medieval studies, Puritan New England, alchemy and 1970’s pop material on psychic phenomenon.

I am a Witch and witches are real. I don’t do actual spells any more, as I never worked one that wasn’t effective, although they all came with unfortunate side-effects or unanticipated collateral damage. My witchiest years were full of “I Love Lucy” sitcom kinds of moments, which would find me moaning, “Oh my gosh, I just wanted to kiss that guy, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt so I could have that chance!” Or, “Now that I have all that energy coursing through me to get through that test/show/day of work, I don’t know how to turn it off!” Cue obnoxious Energizer Bunny inflicted on family, friends or co-workers.

With my full library of Wiccan resources, courtesy of the 1980’s Harmonic Convergence and subsequent opening of the broom closet for witchy types, I learned to work spells. I raised the cone of energy with pagan groups and studied with priestesses. I became more and more adept at managing energy. This was really thrilling for a long time, until I realized that the sad trombone of unanticipated stupid or even slightly dangerous side effects still seemed to accompany my magical successes, so I stopped before getting myself or anyone else into serious trouble. Today when I pray “Thy will be done,”  I have an intimate relationship to the words. The only spell I want to cast at this point in my life is to more mindfully align myself with Lady Wisdom, who has a traffic pattern and flow worked out that I feel I should not interrupt with my personal desires, no matter how altruistic they may seem to be. I do pray a lot: but only to enter into the spirit of peace, to receive clearer understanding or to connect with God’s will, which I understand as a kind of bus that I need to run to catch and board. I don’t know where it’s going and I’m not driving. But I need to get on.

Given my personal past, I was incredibly excited to hear last year that “American Horror Story: Coven” would deal with witches. Contemporary witches! Yessss! My people!  I knew it would be too much to expect that television writers would write about witches in an entirely responsible way, but I thought it reasonable to expect that the creators might at least deal well with women’s spiritual power. The producers announced that Jessica Lange, Gabourey Sidibe, Kathy Bates, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy would have major roles! How could this fail?


Miss Angela Bassett gave me LIFE in this role!

Well, it did. It failed miserably. The show bit off far more than it could chew in terms of addressing America’s racist past and present, setting up a rivalry between the Black voudoun priestess Marie Laveau and European white Fiona Goode, “Grand Supreme” of the Salem Witch legacy. That was a disappointment, but not a surprise. It was an audacious theme to raise, and writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were unable to take it anywhere meaningful.

Where Murphy and Falchuk might have been expected to do better — much better- is in imagining the ways that women might use extraordinary powers. In the end, they could only really imagine three ways: To preserve heterosexual, patriarchal norms of beauty, to compete and take revenge on each other, and to manipulate sexual partners. Every one of the witches longed for heterosexual consummation, except for the sweet and dear Misty Dawn (Lily Rabe) who alone represented the accurate historic role of Witch as healer, knitter-together of shredded pieces of people and situations.  I will never forgive Ryan and Falchuk’s despicable treatment of Gabourey Sidibe, a very heavy African American actress whose character sought coitus with a minotaur, and whose body was positioned in humiliating ways throughout the season that the white, slim actresses were never, ever subjected to.  The season is a horrific testament to unconscious hatred of black bodies and fat bodies.

The woman-on-woman violence in this season sickened me. I watched through to the end of the series because I wanted to see if the writers would ever figure out that powerful women have concerns beyond getting the guy and out-performing each other for more (pointless) power and glory. The one female character who was not a witch was a sadist who delighted in torturing black men, a spectacle that Falchuk and Murphy inexcusably played for entertainment value by the final episode.

I wonder what I would have gotten from “American Horror Story: Coven” as a young witch. I’m sure I would have loved the fabulous costumes, the goth drama, and the first promising episodes. Would I have eventually recognized the deep misogyny and racism in the writing? Would I have continued to love the series because it at least recognized energy work and magic, in however distorted a way? I don’t know. I only appreciate that  magical young women these days have many more resources to go to than I did when I was first exploring the contours, possibilities, limits and responsibilities of my own spiritual power. Sister Witches, I’m sorry that “American Horror Story: Coven” treated our kind with such ignorance and disdain. Go out and write a better story.

tumblr_mxoc5zMbeG1s4jr0no1_500Best character from the season. In the end it was all about Myrtle Snow for me (Frances Conroy).

I totally want those hats.


Dear Lizzie: A Letter To My Girlfriend from “The Blacklist”

Dear Lizzie,

Hey. I haven’t known you for that long, but I watched you last night fighting with your husband about having a baby, and I feel like we need to talk.

I don’t have a husband or kids, Lizzie, and I’m really happy.  To be honest with you, I think you’d be happier if you stopped tormenting yourself about the baby issue. I’ve been watching you, girl. You LIVE FOR YOUR WORK. You totally do. And that’s okay, Lizzie! You’re amazing at catching bad guys! Keep catching bad guys!

I’ve watched you climb an elevator shaft in heels and I just gotta say, a Snuggie is really going to cramp your style.  You won’t even have time to blow-dry your huge, Country Western music star hair anymore. For like, the first ten years of your child’s life. Are you sure you can live with that?

Now let’s get real about your baby daddy. It’s time.  You know you don’t trust him. Neither do I. Neither does the entire UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Lizzie. I’m talking millions of us. We’re worried about you!  Tom says he’s an elementary school teacher but yet he has enough time and energy to make you a totally gourmet dinner and go to an art show opening and flirt with an obviously nefarious female with mean eyes and bad girl lipgloss after a day of work? He’s NOT an elementary school teacher, Lizzie. If he was an elementary school teacher he would be comatose by the television by 8:30 PM with an empty Lean Cuisine container on his chest.

How can you still trust this dude, Lizzie? Maybe it’s because you’re ALWAYS AT WORK DOING WHAT YOU LOVE CHASING SOCIOPATHS and you hardly spend any time with him! No hanging out after work, no grocery shopping together (all that Chinese take-out), no walks with the dog (and I recommend that you two get a dog and see how that goes before adopting a child), no folding laundry together. Who does your laundry, Lizzie? I’ve been wondering.

But I understand, Lizzie, and I sympathize. As a woman who totally loves and lives for her work, I have often made the same mistake about men. Not seeing that they’re shady, lying creeps who are leading double lives, I mean. Don’t feel ashamed. A lot of awesome and brilliant women are really stupid romantically. All I’m saying is, you can’t go having a baby with a man who was recently under FBI investigation. It’s just not wise, you know what I mean? You guys have major trust issues. Also, I could tell you hated being at that baby shower. You can tell me. You hated it. I saw it in your face when you were blindfolded and tasting pureed carrots. You wanted out of there so badly. You were dying to get back to climbing elevator shafts in your high heeled boots. I felt you.

Look, I’m going to say it: you’re not cut out for family life. It’s not that you never make it home on time, it’s that you never make it home at all! You’re obsessed with bringing evil white men to justice (it appears that only white men make the Blacklist, a fact I find somewhat ironic, but aside from a smattering of people of color in your work environment –and in your father figure Red’s personal entourage of people who either protect him or get killed for him– your universe of Criminal Masterminds seems to be 100% snowy white European. I’m more than a little insulted by this, but that’s a conversation we can have another time). You frown all the time. You’re only truly alive when you have a gun in your hand and you’re shouting at Croatian mobsters or serial killers.

Lizzie, Lizzie. You’re never with children! How do you even know that you like them? You have no community of support or social involvement. You never go out to lunch or want to sleep in, and the only incoming calls you get on your cell phone are from the FBI telling you that they found a guy who changes the DNA of his victims in order to fake the deaths of psychopaths who can afford to pay him big money (because we all know that lots of psychopaths have this kind of dough in the bank). My point is, Lizzie, you’re not going to be happy at the park watching a little kid push a toy truck around in the sandbox. You’re going to be really resentful. You’re going to be taking calls from the FBI in the middle of Mommy and Me time because you can’t help it. It’s who you are.  I’ve got news for you: motherhood isn’t going to magically provide you with a personality transplant. You can’t expect one little tiny human being to change you that much. If you had a great hub and you guys were solid, I wouldn’t be so worried. But you guys are SO not a team. He can beam his bright blue eyes on you from behind those fake hipster glasses and say otherwise all he wants, but the guy is SHADY, Lizzie. He’s not there for you. And if he’s not there for you and you’re not there for the bambino on your own or with a partner, someone’s going to wind up in life-long therapy, catch my drift?

So talk to your writers, Liz. It’s all in their hands, really. Tell them that the viewers of America are concerned that you’re pushing a plot line that is totally inconsistent to your character’s integrity. Tell them that we know you’re smarter than to not have had the Honest Talk with Tom yet.  Tell them that they can go ahead and script that talk and that we will all breath a sigh of relief and move on to the real business at hand of Catching Bad Guys and watching James Spader deliver their hilariously psychopathic dialogue with ultimate comic villainy and panache. Oh, and while you’re at it, Lizzie? Please let your writers know that not only white men are capable of being brilliant, dazzlingly creative sociopaths.

We’ll be watching.

A Love Letter to “Matilda The Musical”

This is long overdue, as I saw “Matilda” on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, right after it opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

My sister was the one who alerted me to the fact that “Matilda” by Roald Dahl had been made into a musical and who suggested that we go together. I’m the theatre gal in the family and she’s the art gal, so this was a fun role reversal for us. I’m usually the one who has new shows on the radar, but my sister is a fan of Tim Minchin and knew that he had written the score.

Well, Tim Minchin has not just written the score, he has written THE SCORE for me right now. And I want to thank him, and the team of talented people who brought this project to life, because as the drag queens say, it is giving me life.

At the ripe old age of 48, I would have thought myself past the stage of playing an original cast recording over and over until the tape starts to warble and the orchestra sounds like it’s playing underwater. Good thing we’re in an era of new technology, because I have both the London and the new Broadway cast recording (yay!) on frequent rotation. OK, constant rotation.



“Matilda The Musical” is one of those rare moments in theatre history where original source material, creative team, cast and zeitgeist come together to make something marvelous, magical and deeply moving.

Pardon me, Mr. Minchin, if I get any of your droll lyrics wrong here, as I am quoting from memory.

The show is about children, parents, schools and teachers. It is about families, generational trauma and abuse, and redemption. The most miraculous thing to me about this miraculous show is its ability to shift with total grace and humor between biting mockery of the gospel of every child’s exceptionalism, the stupidity of pop culture (the Kardashians and those who love them should be sent a complimentary copy of Gabriel Ebert and Taylor Trensch moronically celebrating television and the inanities of reality TV in “Telly”) and the comedic aspects of bad parenting (Lesli Margherita, in a kind of blonde Marge Simpson glamour wig, is simultaneously scary and adorable as a brash, neglectful mother without one ounce of maternal instinct) and the depths of the soul.

That may sound a bit much, to claim that “Matilda” addresses the depths of the human soul. It may especially sound so to the composer, Tim Minchin, who is famously and entertainingly atheistic. I hope I won’t offend him by saying that for me, the show’s willingness to spend just as much time on quiet, contemplative moments featuring nothing more spellbinding than a small child telling stories to a rapt librarian (Karen Aldridge as a wonderfully sympathetic Mrs. Phelps) as it does on clever numbers performed by a drill team of preternaturally talented children is what makes it one of the great all-time musicals, and certainly the best I have seen in at least twenty years.

I don’t know how the writers (Minchin and Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book), director (Matthew Warchus, and I’m bowing down to you, sir), brilliant choreographer Peter Darling, design team, and cast managed to channel the complex, slightly macabre, melancholic and outrageous world of Roald Dahl, but they did. They did, and along the way they also managed to achieve something I would never have thought possible, which is to absolutely preserve the integrity of the star character:  a small, bookwormish and sombre little girl who is neither cute, nor winning, nor optimistic. It is impossible not to compare “”Matilda” to another show with a young girl star running right now on Broadway in a successful revival (which I have also seen twice). I love the musical “Annie,” but Matilda is no Annie. Annie is a winning, extroverted little ray of sunshine bringing love to the heart of a big tycoon and to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow!

Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow/there’ll be sun!

Matilda is a smart child who is very much aware that her parents can’t stand her, and who  makes no attempt to be cute about reality. She introduces herself with this hilarious sample of Minchin’s talent for comic poignance:

My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm.

My daddy says I’m a bore.

My mummy says I’m a jumped up little germ/that kids like me should be against the law.

My daddy says I should learn to shut my pie hole/no one likes a smart-mouthed girl like me.

Mum says I’m a good case for population control/Dad says I should watch more TV.

You’ll never catch Matilda tap dancing in the finale. I am sure I am not the only one who found her character revelatory: she is a child who is allowed to face reality head on, to stand up for herself, and to bond with an adult who treats her as an intellectual equal. “Matilda” is radical because it allows a little girl to be angry. It shows a little girl as one who calls out truth in a powerful and demanding way rather than in the culturally-approved dimpling manner we have become used to in female characters.


As a woman who was once a serious little girl with precocious reading habits, a difficult and painful home life, and many teachers who became cherished mentors, I relate to Matilda. Her wonderful first act number, “Naughty,” is one of the most delightful character songs I have heard in years (another is Miss Trunchbull’s first act tour de force, “The Hammer”).

I loved “Naughty,” and I was impressed that Minchin would have given such a challenging number to his very young leading ladies (I saw the wonderful Bailey Ryon, who shares the role with three other actresses, as Matilda).  Having assumed that “Naughty” was Matilda’s biggest song, I was wholly unprepared for her second act aria, “Quiet,” a shockingly intense dramatic counterpoint to Matilda’s mother’s raucous declaration of the value of empty flamboyance, “Loud.” While “Naughty” calls on Minchin’s Matilda’s to wrap their mouths around several verses of intricate lyrics coordinated with Peter Darling’s delightful ninja moves, “Quiet” is Matilda’s moment alone in the spotlight, concentrating very hard on blocking out the noisy, emotionally violent and abusive adults around her and trying to explain to us what she is experiencing. It is worth quoting the song in its entirety, as it is a remarkable achievement. The first section is a rushed recitative:

Have you ever wondered, well I have.
About how when I say, say red, for example.
There’s no way of knowing if red
Means the same thing in your head
As red means in my head, when someone says red.

And how if we are travelling at, almost the speed of light
And we’re holding a light
That light will still travel away from us
At the full speed of light, which seems right in a way

But I’m trying to say, I’m not sure
But I wonder if inside my head
I’m not just a bit different from some of my friends
These answers that come into my mind unbidden
These stories delivered to me fully written.

And when everyone shouts like they seem to like shouting
The noise in my head is incredibly loud.
And I just wish they’d stop, my Dad and my Mum.
And the telly and stories would stop just for once.

I’m sorry, I’m not quite explaining it right.
the noise becomes anger and the anger is light
And its burning inside me would usually fade.
But it isn’t today.
And the heat and the shouting.
And my heart is pounding.
And my eyes are burning
And suddenly everything, everything is…

Here, Matilda becomes connected to her telekenetic power and brings us into what she is experiencing:

Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.
Or a pause in a walk in the woods.

Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that nice kind of quiet.
Like the sound when you lie upside down in your bed.
Just the sound of your heart in your head.

And though the people around me.
Their mouths are still moving.
The words they are forming.
Cannot reach me anymore!

And it is quiet.
And I am warm.
Like I’ve sailed.
Into the eye of the storm.
Well, excuse me Tim Minchin, but for all your atheistic protestations, I would nevertheless like to thank you for putting a child’s mystical experience to music. I think you have written one of the most deeply spiritual musical numbers I have ever heard on the musical theatre stage.

I was a child who had mystical experiences, and I know what I’m talking about. Apparently, Tim Minchin, so do you.  You captured it, you gave it music and words and you gave it to me as a gift that I will always cherish (and hopefully perform myself) and love you for.  So there, with your sarcasm and sexy eyeliner and messy hair and huge heart.

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