In my quest to visit all 50 of these United States, I flew from Los Angeles to Birmingham last week. Actually, crossing one of the few remaining states off my list of visited places was a happy coincidence. The real reason I took the trip was to see my beautiful girlfriend Nicci open her production of RENT in Birmingham. She's right now in her second week of performances. She has been cast in the role of Mimi. I'm very proud. I'll write more about the show further along this blog entry. Having never been to Alabama, I thought it would be fun to explore the city. I've always reveled in being a stranger in a strange land. Birmingham definitely fits into that category. Rich in both culture and history, the city offers sundry learning opportunities. Although my trip stretched from Tuesday until Friday, I really only had one day to drive around and see the sights. Obviously that's not enough time to delve into any metropolitan city, but I'm happy with what I saw. Now if only they could change all the traffic lights from timers to sensors, I could have earned a few extra minutes with which to explore!
I arrived in the evening on Tuesday night following two flight delays out of Los Angeles. I was able to catch the tail-end of cast's last rehearsal, which ran until midnight. On my first night in Birmingham, I saw very little of the city. The drive from the airport to the theater was uneventful. It was hard not to notice how desolate the city streets appeared. I did not encounter a single person walking anywhere in the vicinity of the theater, and most of the local businesses were closed despite it being -- at the very latest -- 8:30pm. I tried to drive around looking for a supermarket or convenience store that sold flowers, but the only two businesses showing signs of life were an adult bookstore and a gas station.
On Wednesday morning, we decided to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located on 16th Street North (directly across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is mostly known for its racially-motivated bombing in September of 1963). It was an intense way to start one's day, but also an eye-opening experience. The fact that the city of Birmingham was so far behind the rest of the country when it came to desegregation made viewing the various exhibits and videos in the museum even more shocking. I am admittedly young, naive and spoiled by my having grown up in an era of improved equality. I cannot imagine having lived through such a dark period in our nation's history, especially in a city internationally acknowledged for its struggles. I had no idea the city of Birmingham actually had two elected city governments in 1963. Nearly ten years after the landmark Brown v. Board Of Education Of Topeka decision, Birmingham was lagging behind the rest of the country in recognizing equality amongst its populace. I don't want to say the Institute was depressing, but it is as moving as the Holocaust museum in DC and remains in your thoughts long after you've exited the building.
From there we traveled to Five Points South, an area that provided me with my first glimpses of people actually walking around doing things in the city. We had lunch at a nondescript Mexican joint with bland food and a solid beer list. Our waiter was nice enough to inform me there is a brewery near the restaurant that will allow you to call and request a tour. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to take a brewery tour during my trip. Also, the idea of driving my uninsured rental car around a new city after a brewery tour didn't sit well with me. Instead, Nicci and I walked through some of the stores in the district. There are two record stores within a few blocks of each other, but neither yielded a single purchase.
As Nicci left for a media-only dress rehearsal, I drove to The Vulcan Statue to enjoy a sunset over the city. It is the world’s largest cast iron statue. It’s the symbol of Birmingham. It’s pretty fucking mammoth. I arrived there at about 6pm, and stayed until 8 or 8:30, walking around the grounds, hiking up and down the stairs (is it 159 steps or 160?) to kill time between stages of sunset. The views of the city were amazing. I took about 200 photos, most of which came out blurry. Who knew I had such an unsteady hand? There was a cocktail party to benefit Breast Cancer awareness below the statue, so I stuck around to see how that played out. Upon leaving, I tried to search Yelp! on my iPhone for late-night coffeeshops in Birmingham offering free WiFi, but the FIVE different ones I drove to were all closed. Once again, the city (outside of the Five Points district) was dead. I killed some time at Wal-Mart before Nicci returned. That Wal-Mart, it turns out, overcharged me for flowers and wine. They must have seen my out-of-state license and figured they could plunder my checking account. Ugh. Wal-Mart.
Thursday was a hectic day. Members of the cast took the show's director, Ron, out to lunch at a really good barbecue restaurant. One of them said it was a regional chain restaurant, Jim 'N Nicks, but chain or not, barbecue is barbecue. I was invited. I drank my Good People Oatmeal Coffee Stout and listened as the actors discussed their craft with their respected director. As someone with absolutely no acting talent (but look at how well I played a dead coke fiend!), I was fascinated by their rapport, and preferred to listen to the wise and worldly Ron interact with his disciples. Following the meal, we returned to the hotel so she could begin her preparations for opening night.
I don’t think I have to explain the plot of RENT. Everybody knows the story, right? Well, this production was phenomenal. I know my review could be biased because of my girlfriend's involvement, but I swear I did not expect it to be so awesome. To my ears, there was not a single weak voice in the cast. The ensemble was ridiculous; the harmonies sounded perfect. I’d say the best three songs of the night were the reprise of “I’ll Cover You,” “Will I” and “Seasons Of Love”. The latter tune received a huge ovation from the crowd. To be honest, I was a little surprised by the audience's loud applause. I had no idea whether or not the show's characters would be loved and accepted in a city where equality has never come easily. Those who are closed-minded might deride the show for its perceived promotion of taboo behavior or lifestyle choices. Luckily, the audience got the underlying message of unconditional love. Much credit is due to both the cast and the director for delivering this message strongly and clearly. Now is probably as good a time as any to say that if you live in the Birmingham area, you should definitely go to the Red Mountain Theater Company's Cabaret Theater and see the production of RENT before its run ends on October 18th. And if you happen to bump into Nicci, tell her you read about it on the WFMU blog. Maybe she'll be as proud of me as I am of her.
There was an afterparty for the cast and crew a few blocks away at a bar called the Rogue Tavern. Since I don’t really have any other way of expressing joy towards others' accomplishments — especially when I don’t possess a theater vocabulary — I bought a bunch of people their first round of drinks. I think that was my way of saying, “Bravo” or whatever you’re supposed to tell actors and actresses when they succeed even beyond your highest expectations. It was a really good time. I drank a lot. I met a lot of super-nice people. The entire cast and crew are all so warm and welcoming. I am sure that is one ingredient to their success as a unit.
The next morning I returned to Los Angeles. It was a brief trip, sure, but a fascinating one. I'll be here in Los Angeles for another few weeks before I fly east to work/shop at the WFMU Record Fair. If my calculations are correct, my next blog post will be the day before the fair begins. I'll provide more details at that time, should you desire to approach me and tell me my blog posts suck, or maybe buy me a beer. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts on Birmingham in the comments section. Let me know what I missed out on, so that I can grumble about not having enough time to truly immerse myself in the city.