Power Over

“Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.” — Bill Cosby

When my mother asked me what I wanted for a high school graduation present, I said I would like to take my girlfriend to see Bill Cosby perform at the opera house in San Francisco. The year was 1967. I first heard of Bill Cosby in 1964 when I was working as a counselor at a summer camp for kids from East Palo Alto. One day, as I was imitating my fast-talking uncle Howard to entertain my group of ten and eleven-year-old boys, one of my charges opined, “You sound like Bill Cosby.”

“Yeah,” said another boy. “You sound just like him.”

After camp that day, I went to Discount Records in Menlo Park, bought Bill Cosby’s album Why Is There Air?, and listened to the routines over and over again until I could do them a la Cosby, much to the delight of my friends. Bill Cosby did indeed sound just like my Uncle Howard—a linguistic mystery given that Uncle Howard was a middle-aged white Jewish guy from Los Angeles and Bill Cosby was a young black guy from Philadelphia.

I never bought another Cosby album, but I did see him perform at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos and then at the San Francisco opera house for my senior graduation present. The Pair Extraordinaire opened for Cosby on both occasions and I bought two of their records—Carl Craig singing jazzy ballads to the accompaniment of bass player Marcus Hemphill.

What I remember most vividly about Cosby’s opera house performance was that I no longer found him funny, but rather brilliantly sad in the manner of Marcel Marceau, the great French mime. Indeed, much of his performance was mime, and I felt he was trying to express emotions with facial expressions and physical mannerisms that no words could properly convey.

Then I lost track of Cosby for thirty years, not being a television watcher, and next heard him sounding repulsively Republican in his chastisement of black people for not trying hard enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Millionaires who blame poor people for their poverty are repulsive to me, and I was saddened that Cosby had become an elitist bigot. And then I thought no more about him.

“Women don’t want to hear what you think. Women want to hear what they think, in a deeper voice.” — Bill Cosby

Dozens of women have now come forth and accused Bill Cosby of drugging them and raping them, trying to rape them, or coercing them to have sex with him—the alleged sexual assaults taking place continuously from the 1960’s until just a few years ago. Several of the women initially made their claims years and decades ago, but were ignored or lambasted for coming forth with their stories, and many more of the women are making their claims public for the first time, emboldened by the claims of others. Cosby’s lawyers call the accusations ridiculous, and Cosby, as of this writing, refuses to discuss the accusations.

“We’ve got too many young girls who don’t know how to parent, turning themselves into parents.” — Bill Cosby

The sickening scenes described by Cosby’s accusers are reminiscent of the many stories I have heard from women and men who entered the theatre world, the movie business, the New York publishing world, and the music business with great expectations and soon came to critical junctions in their career paths when they were promised advancement in exchange for submitting to the sexual dominance of someone higher up the pyramid of power. In most of the stories, not submitting to the higher-up ended or precipitated the end of the career of the aspirant. In some cases, submitting to the demands of the higher-up did the aspirant little or no good, while in a few cases submission did open doors to greater opportunities.

As one disenchanted screenwriter put it, “The movie business is all about power over. You may not always have to let them fuck you physically, but you always have to let them fuck with what you write or they will wreck your chances forever.”

My own experiences during the several years I was active in the movie business and in New York publishing confirmed the stories of my fellow aspirants, as well as that screenwriter’s assessment of how the movie business works. In the context of those male-dominated power-over systems, the accusations of Cosby’s accusers ring loudly and tragically true.

“There are two sides to every story, and sometimes three, four, and five.” — Bill Cosby

Many years ago when I was running the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I led a group of 30 aspiring young writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and visual artists in a series of two-hour-long workshops. I divided the performers into mixed gender groups of six, elucidated a creative challenge, and gave the groups very little time to create, practice, and refine their creations before they performed them.

For instance, I gave the groups 15 minutes to create dramatic scenes revolving around mysteries, the scenes climaxing in songs and ending with the groups forming tableaus that resolved the mysteries. I expected rough stuff at best, and was stunned when each group performed a compelling scene with sophisticated dialogue leading seamlessly into a catchy song with clever lyrics that carried the narrative to a revelatory climax ending in an ingenious tableau.

Had I not watched these groups swiftly and cooperatively create, rehearse, modify, rehearse, and then perform these scenes and songs and tableaus, I would never have believed that works so polished and complex and beautifully synchronized could have come about in so short a time. Yet these groups of inspired women and men created brilliant scenes and songs and dances with astonishing ease, over and over.

For the final creative challenge, I divided the 30 artists into three groups of ten and gave them a half-hour to create clans. Each clan would have a name, a purpose, a creation myth, a history, a code of ethics, a motto, a clan song, a clan dance, and clan gestures, with these clan attributes to be revealed in some sort of artful performance. The results were nothing short of miraculous and proved to me that in the absence of an ossified hierarchy, creative genius flourishes.

(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)

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