It’s November, and I’m sitting in the cozy confines of the Chicago Dramatists Workshop at Milwaukee and Chicago avenues. I’m here to review one of the first performances of Terry Abrahamson’s comedy-musical The Brat Race, but the concept, as they say in Yiddish, is nicht fur mir. Four couples, one pair each of yuppies, African Americans, WASPs, and lesbians, are struggling to get their children into prestigious private schools. Through songs and short scenes, Abrahamson’s musical delves into the angst of writing applications for a three-year-old, trying to convince the schools’ snobby arbiters that you’ve produced the next Albert Einstein. I don’t live on the Gold Coast, my last name isn’t Pritzker, I’m still very happy about the process of contraception. I can give a shit.
But strangely, for the first half of the play I find myself getting more and more involved in Abrahamson’s comedy. The songs, especially, are witty, hummable, and surprisingly astute. There is some rather intelligent commentary about Chicago politics. Sure, there are dead spots, jokes that go “clunk” when they fall out of the actors’ mouths, pointless scenes. Still, at the intermission I am cautiously optimistic, decidedly enthused. I find myself saying without irony, “Hey, this is probably the best of all musicals I could possibly imagine about getting kids into private schools in Chicago that still would appeal to my cousin Paulie from Wheaton.”
But in the second act something happens. Things fall apart, as Chinua Achebe might say. What had begun as a good-natured, cartoonish, and promising comedy turns ugly, wading uncomfortably in the sewage of sexist humor and tired old stereotypes of ethnic groups and gays. There are jokes about a husband selling his wife’s body to the admissions director of a Catholic school, where the priests have to be chained to chairs so they don’t try to sodomize the children. There’s a running gag about East Indians selling Slurpees. I leave the theater with an incredibly bad taste in my mouth that I can only compare to the final bites of a late-night Maxwell Street Polish sausage: it seems so yummy at first but leaves you tooling around South Halsted in desperate search of a rest room.
I imagine the author of The Brat Race to be a clever and talented yupster who, trying to get back in touch with the city he abandoned for the ‘burbs years ago, crapped out this little play as a kind of midlife crisis lark. I expect Abrahamson to be a Cosby-sweatered sharpie who works as a high-powered ad exec or car dealer by day, wines and dines and tells dirty jokes at Myron & Phil’s by night, and spends his weekends exploring his long-dormant creative impulses. So a couple of months later, when the swimming-pool blue ’72 Chevy Impala screeches to a halt at Clark and Oakdale and a slight, ponytailed, dangly-earring-wearing, army-pants-sporting Terry Abrahamson lopes out with a good-humored, aging-hippy gait and enters the cafe there, I am taken somewhat aback.
I suppose most people are composed of multiple levels and countless contradictions, but Terry Abrahamson seems more so. You might think he was an octopus, because whenever you think you have him pegged, you’ve got to say “on the other hand” about seven times. On one hand, he is a smooth, sharp, savvy businessman with a knack for making money in all of the sometimes bizarre careers he’s had. On the other hand, he’s a loopy wiseacre, a goofball with a taste for groan- inducing jokes. On yet another hand, he’s a serious and committed political animal with an array of idiosyncratic philosophies and conspiracy theories that he can articulate convincingly and intelligently. On one hand more, sometimes he seems just a little bit nuts.
Abrahamson’s writing is as multifaceted as his personality, for better and for worse. His political writing and poetry, which has riveted audiences at poetry slams, burn with an anger that has also found its way into his screenwriting. His knack for joking and punning has informed his work in advertising. The best of his songs combine his sensitivity to social issues with his verbal economy. And then there’s that sub-Mad magazine reflex of his, which finds its way into his scripts and could lead you to believe he once worked as a jokesmith for Buddy Hackett or Shecky Greene.
He has the air of a ne’er do well, only he’s done very well. Though they’ve never been produced by the moguls of Hollywood, Abrahamson’s film scripts have earned him a small fortune. He’s also earned multibucks as a Hollywood script doctor. You might not be familiar with the songs he’s written but you know the acts who’ve performed them, and he, Joan Jett, Clarence Clemons, and the estate of Muddy Waters are still collecting the royalty checks. Unless you were in a coma in the 70s you certainly know some of the top-flight ads he worked on. Hell, you might even have seen him once as a contestant on Tic Tac Dough.
If there’s a theme that runs through Abrahamson’s writing career, it’s that he seems always to be working on fluffy projects in hopes that they’ll give him the notoriety and financial stability to work on the more serious, less commercial, more political projects he longs to complete. The only trouble is that at present, Abrahamson’s fluff has been the one side of him the public has seen. He has some intriguing film scripts he’d like to produce, but for now he’s raising money for a film called Get Naked. The political scripts remain in a desk drawer, while The Brat Race now plays at the Body Politic. If busloads of suburbanites flock to it, though, maybe the next time they go out to the theater they’ll see a very different Terry Abrahamson.
Abrahamson’s writing ambitions showed early at the Budlong grade school on the north side, where he did some script and music writing for school assemblies.
“It’s how I liked to express myself,” he says. “I always liked to write something fun so people would laugh at it or move someone with what’s inside of me.”
From 1964 to 1968 he went to high school at Amundsen, where he says that as a Jew he was something of an oddity.
“A lot of the kids were children of people who had come over from Germany after the war, and they weren’t the people with the tattoos,” Abrahamson says.
“I would go to kids’ houses and I would hear their mothers take them into the other room and say, ‘You know what you brought into this house?’ I heard euphemisms for Jews you never knew existed. The only time I was a hero was in 1967 during the Six-Day War. These guys came up to me because the Jews had saved the Holy Land from Nasser. I was an anomaly in the locker room because I didn’t have a foreskin, and these guys were saying, ‘Hey! You guys really kicked ass over there!'”
Abrahamson is an almost compulsive storyteller. He speaks breathlessly, sentences folding over each other, his words spraying out unself-consciously. When he wants to show you how big something is, he gets up and shows you, marking off feet and inches in the middle of the cafe. Ask him a question like, oh, “What did you do after high school?” and you don’t have to ask him anything else for the next half-hour.
During high school, Abrahamson speaks with pride about how he was one of those guys who “discovered” the blues. He got turned on to the music watching Shindig in 1965.
“You know, I was listening to the Rolling Stones,” Abrahamson explains. “I’m reading the liner notes and I see these names McKinley Morganfield, Howlin’ Wolf, and I’m thinking, ‘The Stones didn’t write their own songs; that’s kind of weird.’ One night I’m watching TV and the Rolling Stones come on and they bring out this old guy, this black guy. He looked like the janitor at my high school. Who is this guy? I’m thinking. He’s all hunched over and he’s got this five-cent white shirt on and his fly’s open and he starts in with this ‘Hunnnnnnnnnhhhhhh!’ It was Howlin’ Wolf. Wow.”
Around that time, Abrahamson started going to Alice’s on Wrightwood, now the Club 950.
“It was a room that was probably from here to here,” Abrahamson says, getting up to demonstrate. “You’d sit there, and if you had to go to the bathroom you climbed up onstage and went to the bathroom. So I met Muddy Waters going to use his bathroom and I met Howlin’ Wolf goin’ to use his bathroom and I met Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor and all these people and it just seemed so real to me. It was there. You could touch it. You could feel it. It was so magical.
“The Rolling Stones were playing at the Amphitheatre, and here were these old black guys playing for 20 bucks a night and sitting back there, drinking shit out of a jar that could probably take the paint off a carburetor. The only thing I could compare it to was the first time I was at Disneyland, ’cause I grew up in the late 50s, early 60s when Disneyland first opened, and I watched The Mickey Mouse Club, and Disneyland was like this fairy tale land which didn’t really exist for a kid from Chicago. But you’d see Annette and you’d fall in love with Annette, and you’d see these Mouseketeers. This was the same way. It was this mecca. It was like hallowed ground.”
Abrahamson went to the University of Illinois downstate, having “no ambition to do much more than work at a bookstore all my life. But you had to go to college or you went to Vietnam.” While he was there, he started booking bands for the university’s concert committee. He says the school didn’t see much financial logic to booking blues bands so he did it on his own, and he claims that when he booked Blind Jim Brewer it was the most successful concert the U. of I. had ever had. Yeah, OK. But anyway, he went on booking acts like Brewer and Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, graduated in 1973, and returned to Chicago.
“My mother threw me out of the house,” Abrahamson says with a chuckle. “I came home from college and she said, ‘You’ve got a week to clean up your act or leave the house. I can’t stand living with you. You’re breaking my heart. Why do you have to look like Charles Manson?’ I said, ‘Mom, why does Charles Manson gotta look like me?'”
For a couple of months he lived in a dollar-a-day fraternity room at Northwestern, and that’s where he met Ted Kurland, a hotshot 20-year-old who was going to Brandeis and booking acts on the east coast like Pat Metheney, Gary Burton, and Keith Jarrett. Kurland invited Abrahamson to come to Boston and work alongside him booking blues musicians.
“So the first day we get there, we want to hear some blues,” Abrahamson recalls. “We go to Joe’s Place, this legendary blues place where Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt used to play. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were there, and there was this white guy opening the show. He had this acoustic guitar with a harmonica and he had these little pieces of paper taped to the guitar and they were all autographs–Howlin’ Wolf’s auto-graph, Chuck Berry’s autograph, John Lee Hooker’s.
“The next day we thought we would get him some gigs because we were already booking Hound Dog Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf. We called up the bar and asked if this guy was around and if we could get in touch with him. They said he’d gone home and he was living with his mother in Delaware. So we call him up and we get a hold of him. [Dramatic pause] It was George Thorogood.”
According to Abrahamson, Thorogood spent the summer of 1973 sleeping on Abrahamson’s couch.
“Nobody knew who he was. He was just playing for drinks,” Abrahamson says. “He stayed up every night on the toilet teaching himself electric guitar. We loaned him the money to buy his first electric guitar. We begged him to put a band together so he could make some real money. He wound up bringing in his two buddies. Those wound up being the Destroyers.”
Abrahamson wrote a Boston Celtics fight song that year, then he and Thorogood conned their way into Red Auerbach’s assistant’s office to play the tape the Destroyers made of it. The song got them what they wanted–free season tickets. Thorogood didn’t want to put his name on it, so it came out as the “Boston Celtic Fight Song” by the “Boston Basketball Band.”
Abrahamson continued booking Blind Jim Brewer (who wasn’t really blind, according to Abrahamson) and other blues acts around New England, not the easiest task in Boston, which Abrahamson terms “the most racist city in the world.”
“I was dating these black women,” Abrahamson says. “And when you’re a white guy dating a black woman in Boston in 1973, it’s just terrible. We got shit thrown at our car. I would be refused service in restaurants. It was very primitive and very thuggish.”
A conversation with Brewer inspired Abrahamson to write blues songs. “He and George Thorogood and I are driving around and talking about women, and he’s like, ‘I’d sure like to plug into her socket.’ So I wrote this song, ‘Men call me Jim. Women call me electric man. When I plug into your socket, I’ll charge you like no one else can.’ He said, ‘That’s good shit, boy. You ought to write that for Muddy Waters.’ So I rewrote it for Muddy Waters and he came to town a couple weeks later and I asked him what he thought and he said, ‘That’s good shit, boy. You oughta write that down.'”
Abrahamson wound up working for Waters as something between hanger-on and manager. He functioned on occasion as Waters’s advance man, answered phone calls, drove him around, and even wrote three songs that Waters wound up recording.
“I was his gofer,” Abrahamson says. “People called. I was in the hotel room and I’d answer the phone. Somewhere I’ve got a receipt from the Plaza Hotel, where we stayed in 1973. We had a room on the park and it was $48. He hated it. He said he’d never stay there again because he didn’t know how to turn the air conditioning off. He said it was the worst place he ever stayed.
“He was an incredible man with incredible dignity,” Abrahamson remembers. “It was an incredible few years working with him, because when you go with Muddy Waters everybody comes to play with him. We had the Allman Brothers and Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Everybody.”
Abrahamson stakes a claim to being the one who convinced Muddy Waters to bring back the now-classic “Mannish Boy” (“When I was a young man, the age of five, my mama tol’ me I’d be the greatest man alive . . .”).
“Muddy Waters was in a near-fatal car crash in ’67 or ’68 and he was on crutches for a couple years after,” Abrahamson says. “I said to him, ‘You have this song on The Real Folk Blues, this song ‘Mannish Boy,’ that’s a great song. Why don’t you do that?’ He’s like, ‘Shit, man. I can’t do that. I gotta shake around for that. Man, I can hardly stand up.’ But I didn’t leave it alone. For four years I kept asking him to do it, and he finally started doing it again.”
Abrahamson split up with Kurland in the mid-70s and came back to Chicago. He got a job working as an ad copywriter for Leo Burnett. He scripted commercials for Charlie the Tuna, the Jolly Green Giant, and Morris the Cat. Abrahamson claims to be the SOB who killed Morris.
“We were in Griffith Park [in Los Angeles] and it was a hundred degrees and I was like, ‘We’ve gotta keep going, we’ve gotta keep going,’ and someone’s like, ‘No, you’re gonna kill the cat.’ And I was like, ‘No, it’ll be all right.’ We finished the shoot. We get a call at the hotel an hour later. The cat is dead.'”
Abrahamson moved to the west coast and wrote ad jingles for three years for Levi’s. He soon eased his way into Hollywood’s music-writing and film industries. His first “movie gig” was writing ad copy for movie posters. The only credits he recalls are Romancing the Stone (“In the most savage jungle on earth, no one knew the meaning of the word mercy. They only spoke Spanish.”) and Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (“They saw Paris. They saw France. They saw the queen in her underpants.”).
“That was about as cerebral as it got,” Abrahamson cackles. Meanwhile, he was moonlighting as a freelance copywriter, most notably writing ad parodies for Hustler. He had Jerry Falwell talking to Campari about his “first time” with his mother, and according to Abrahamson, his original version was so gross that even Larry Flynt was gun-shy. When the parody finally did see ink, it became the subject of a heated legal battle between Hustler and Falwell’s Moral Majority. In a war between two of the more repulsive elements of American society, the magazine wound up winning. Abrahamson was also trying his hand at songwriting. He and Rick Nowels wrote a song for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts called “Just Lust.”
In 1983 Abrahamson got something of a break. Granted, it wasn’t Spielberg calling, but it was the best he could have expected at the time. A director was getting a shot to direct a quasi-legitimate exploitation feature that Abrahamson describes as “Flashdance in a women’s prison.”
“The director was leaving in five days for [South America] to shoot the film and it was unshootable,” Abrahamson recalls in a story that tests belief. “The guys who were producing the movie didn’t care. They owned a chain of movie theaters in South America that were basically a front. It was a money-laundering operation for South American drug dealing. And they needed these movie theaters and they needed to put their own product in it because they didn’t want to have to deal with legitimate motion picture distributors. They just needed some shitty movies to put on the screen so people would think they had movie theaters. So I got a thousand dollars out of the director’s own pocket to rewrite it.”
This screenwriting assignment led to work on other movies, not that his contribution necessarily saw the light of day. He did uncredited script doctoring for Alice Cooper’s Monster Dog and Shadoe Stevens’s Traxx, two flicks that went straight to video, and for C. Thomas Howell’s Soul Man, a mainstream romantic comedy where, ho ho, a white guy pretends to be black to get into college. But Abrahamson’s rewrite never reached the screen. Likewise, a movie of the week script for Disney didn’t get produced, he says, because “they changed their format from two hours to one hour.”
In 1989, however, Abrahamson struck gold. Shortly after Peter Guber and Jon Peters took over Columbia Pictures Entertainment for Sony and embarked on what Variety called a “script buying spree,” Variety reported that Abrahamson sold them his action-adventure script, “The Black Box,” for $750,000.
“It was like Three Days of the Condor meets Lethal Weapon,” Abrahamson says in his Hollywood-pitch-patter style. “I was very political and I was bothered by the racist undertones to the whole trade war going on between the United States and Japan, which was pretty hot at the time. It was about manipulating people’s sentiments to cast the Japanese in a bad light.”
The movie never was made–partly, Abrahamson says, because the new Columbia heads were nervous about which way it would rub the studio’s Japanese owners. But he made the cover of Variety, and as the new hot screenwriter in town did the rounds with all the major studio heads, only to fall on his face with a variety of conspiracy-mongering scripts that had box office poison written all over them.
“I thought very naively that now that I had sold this script for a ton of dough, I could do the stories that were important to me,” says Abrahamson. “All the studio heads asked me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ And I said, ‘Well I’ll tell you what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to make the next Ghost and I don’t want to make the next Three Men and a Baby.’
“I’d written a screenplay about what I believed was the development of the AIDS virus by the United States Army in Africa in the mid-70s with the sole purpose of infecting the Cuban troops in Angola who would then go home and infect the general population in Cuba. Castro gets wind of this, and in 1979 he empties the hospitals and the prisons and sends them to the United States in the boat lift so the disease would enter this country. I wrote a script which was my response to the pharmaceutical war against women that’s been waged in this country for decades with things like silicone implants. I wrote a script about recapturing our 60s values, about trying to find the compassion in our souls to reach out to the voiceless in our country.
“It was career suicide,” Abrahamson allows.
The best gig Abrahamson could come up with was a TV job writing an episode of The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. The episode starred Bill Cobbs as a struggling blues artist who goes mad when an Axl Rose kind of guy steals his song and plays it on MTV.
“During the course of the show Rosie learns about the blues,” Abrahamson explains. “A lot of the material I used were things I used to lecture about in the Chicago public schools when I’d go to grade schools on the west side and south side and talk about blues and give these kids some kind of understanding of their musical heritage and their musical birthright.”
Again he moved back to Chicago, now working free-lance as an ad copywriter while meaning to raise money independently and make the features Hollywood didn’t want to make. In 1991 he produced a cute 12-minute film called How Blue Can You Get? about an experience he’d had trying to sell a song to B.B. King. In the film, which features A.C. Smith and Chicago actors Ernest Perry and Cedric Young, a white blues songwriter wannabe tries to sell a song to blues star Taildragger Sam, who mistakenly thinks the young man is trying to sell him a boom box. The film was featured for a week at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, won honors at the Boston and Houston film festivals, and, for what it’s worth, won a “best of the show” citation here at Around the Coyote.
Back in Chicago, though, Abrahamson didn’t start in right away with his serious projects. He began trying to raise money for his “Get Naked” script, a “total piece of fluff” he pitched as “House Party meets Wayne’s World.” To satisfy his political urges, he bellowed his anti-establishment rants to the converted at the Green Mill poetry slams, blasting Oliver North and American institutional racism. They’re not Ginsberg and they sound more than a little like pop lyrics, but Abrahamson’s poems have a violent edginess that makes them perfect for the slam.
Well, you can hide ’em in Chicago
In them Robert Taylor Homes
You can hide them up in Harlem
And pray they all stay stoned.
You can hide ’em out in Roxbury
Or down in south LA
But you can’t hide these folks forever
And there will be a judgment day.
There’s a nation in this nation
Of whom you decent folk don’t speak
But it’s a dangerous game you’re playin’
This Apartheid and Seek.
You can hide ’em in their classrooms
Them teenage crackhead mothers.
Go hide them in their gangs
And hope they only kill each other.
But someday, God will hip them black folks
Like he hipped Noah to the ark,
That white folks are much easier
To shoot at in the dark.
The storm is on the rise
And the dam has sprung a leak
Before we drown, let’s put it down
This Apartheid and Seek.
“We live in two cities and it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Abrahamson, wildly gesticulating. “Stuff doesn’t happen by coincidence. Have you seen Clear and Present Danger? You’re familiar with the technology where elements of the CIA or the government can tell you where any enemy spy is anywhere in the world by satellite surveillance and all this other stuff, but they can’t tell you when crack cocaine is coming into this country and winding up in Altgeld Gardens?”
Over the last 30 to 40 years, Abrahamson maintains, advancing a theory that seems to be getting more popular over time, there has been a conspiracy to isolate black Americans with the ultimate goal of removing them from society.
“You know, we’re very lucky,” Abrahamson tells me. “We never had to worry about whether someone’s going to come in at three in the morning looking for our cousin who’s been mixed up with drug dealers and kill us. Well, it’s happening and who cares? There’s no more black family structure. There isn’t any. Black males have been removed from black families. The women are either forced to go to work to support these kids or these mothers stay home with the kids and they’re chastised as welfare queens. They can’t win.
“We’ve got to stop it now. We should have stopped it 25 years ago. When I was in college, every night Walter Cronkite started the news with a map of Vietnam behind him. I can see that map in my mind like it’s tattooed on my brain. Every night the news should be starting with the Robert Taylor Homes on it or Altgeld Gardens on it or South Central LA, because this is the greatest threat to what’s happening in this country. This is much more sinister than the communist threat we sunk so much money and so much energy into for 40 years. And I feel very strongly about it. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m crazy, man. But it’s out there, man. It’s out there.”
While trying to raise money for “Get Naked,” which boasted E-Street sax sideman Clarence Clemons as a coproducer, Abrahamson wrote a play called Doo Lister’s Blues. A drama with original songs that deals with racism in the recording industry during the 60s, it airs another of Abrahamson’s pet conspiracy theories–that somehow the U.S. government and record companies conspired to keep political content out of black music.
“Music is such a powerful force, but all you heard back then were the old church songs,” Abrahamson says. “Where was [the political music coming out of the black community] between ’65 and ’68? Where was it when the civil rights movement was going on, when people were pissed off, when it could have catalyzed people, when people would have been more responsive to it? Was there anybody’s music you ever hear? Maybe Gil-Scot Heron doing ‘Johannesburg.’ But where was it? At the peak of anger in black America, where was the music that is such a big part of drawing emotions out of people? You heard Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Peter, Paul & Mary. You think anyone in Garfield Park was listening to Peter, Paul & Mary?”
Doo Lister is a barber and amateur songwriter in Garfield Park at the time of the ’68 west-side riots. As he sees his brother turning to heroin and society disintegrating, his music becomes more political. Played late at night by daring DJs, it begins to gain underground popularity. He writes a song about how the Boston Tea Party was an act of rebellion never referred to as a riot: “When you react to the fact that things are so damn hard, better call it a party before they call out the guard.” But the FBI accuses Lister of writing music to incite riots in Detroit and ends his career. He winds up, according to Abrahamson, like Winston Smith in 1984.
Abrahamson wanted desperately to produce Doo Lister’s Blues. It received a reading at the Goodman, where he says he was told that people were nervous about a white writer dealing with black issues. He knew the piece would be a gamble for any commercial producer and he decided to produce it himself. He had to make money with fluff before he could get on with the meat. So he did The Brat Race instead.
“This play is kind of one of the dirty little secrets in Chicago about what people will do to get their kids into private schools,” Tony Fitzpatrick is saying. We’re on the 37th floor of the Hancock, and Abrahamson is doing some on-air hype for The Brat Race on Fitzpatrick and Wendy Snyder’s evening talk show on WLUP.
“It’s the yuppie nightmare,” Abrahamson responds with a hint of nervousness as he stands in front of a microphone. He’s alongside one of his actors, Rhomeyn Johnson, and his musical director Charlie Silliman. Watching him through the glass is an entourage of weedy Loop producers and a couple of publicists.
“Now Terry, did you go to a public school or a private school?” Snyder asks.
“I went to the Chicago public schools,” Abrahamson responds.
“And you have kids,” she prods.
“I have three kids and they go to private schools.”
“There ya go,” Snyder says.
“That was the inspiration for the play. It’s about the craziness and what you will go through to get your kid into a private school,” Abrahamson says.
“We had to get on a list,” Fitzpatrick offers.
“That’s it, man,” Abrahamson concurs. “Theoretically, there are waiting lists.”
“God, it’s like The Bozo Show,” Snyder gasps.
“No,” Fitzpatrick says with a cackle. “It’s worse.”
After Abrahamson moved back to Chicago with his wife, a civil rights attorney, they began the process of getting their kids into private schools. He did the rounds of Lab School, Latin, Francis Parker, and the like and found a situation chock-full of comedy potential. He and his wife filled out applications, delivered their children to “play parties” with other applicant toddlers, and got to the post office at 6:45 AM to intercept the mail the day the acceptance and rejection letters from the schools were supposed to arrive.
“From the time a child is born to the time a kid is three or four years old, unless the kid has some serious illness you’re always able to protect that child,” Abrahamson observes. “The child is never exposed to any threat that you can’t deal with. You take them out to these private schools and they are looked at and they are judged and you can’t control it and the little kid is so vulnerable, and on a lot of levels it’s you that’s vulnerable. But you’re transferring all this protective feeling into the situation and it makes you nuts.”
He wasn’t crazy about the idea of their three sons going to Latin (“Nancy Reagan went there”). The classes were too small at Chicago City Day School (“It’s almost like going to school at home”). And his harrowing Hebrew school experiences on the north side of Chicago turned him off Anshe Emet.
“The way they chastised you in Hebrew school was to say, ‘Abrahamson, you’re no better than the goyim. You should’ve been a goy,'” Abrahamson recalls with a shudder. “I learned at a very early age that you do not teach kids that they’re better than anyone else. My father would say, ‘It’s attitudes like that that got six million Jews gassed.’ There was a black guy who cleaned up there and the old shamus used to call after him, ‘Shvartzer! Shvartzer!’ That was some gall. And that never left me.”
To sabotage his application to Anshe Emet, Abrahamson says that when he was asked how he disciplined his children, he lied, “spanking.” His two school-age sons have wound up at Francis Parker, which Abrahamson has nothing but praise for, although weird things go on there, like the fund-raiser where one family auctioned off their condo in Katmandu (“I swear to God that’s true,” Abrahamson laughs. “I’ll bet it was across the street from the Best Buy and the Wal-Mart and the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant in Katmandu, too.”).
As a commercial form of therapy Abrahamson wrote a series of comic songs and scenes needling the private school application process, taking everyone he’d met and turning them into theatrical cartoons.
“It’s nice that there’s a funny way into schools, because schools sure ain’t funny,” Tony Fitzpatrick observes. “This is the worst school system in the United States.” Fitzpatrick’s own kids are still too young for school.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Abrahamson says. “It really doesn’t have to be. And it does create a panic situation for every yuppie in the city, myself included. What are you going to do with your kids? When I was a kid the public schools weren’t great, but you thought you could learn something other than how to load a gun.”
“As long as you don’t get shot,” Fitzpatrick says. “Even if I was the head of the Chicago public schools I wouldn’t let my kids go to them. Not in a hundred years.”
“Hopefully that will change,” Abrahamson says.
“Maybe it will some day,” Snyder says cheerfully.
“For the benefit of the play, hopefully it won’t change overnight,” Abrahamson says. “We’ve got a great show, a great cast, a lot of energy, a lot of fun songs.”
“Can we do a song?” Snyder asks. “Can we take a break and can you come back and do a song?”
“Sure,” Abrahamson says.
“A song from The Brat Race,” Snyder says. “We’re talking with Terry Abrahamson, writer and director of The Brat Race, a new musical at the Body Politic Theatre, and Terry, I understand you’re also a teacher at Northwestern?”
“Yes,” Abrahamson says. “I teach writing for television at Northwestern.”
“Cool for you,” Snyder says.
It’s nervous time at the Body Politic, the night before The Brat Race reopens. The cast is becoming testy. Actress Breisa Youmans is passing out tablets of vitamin C. Others are running lines. The rehearsal is running late, as they always do. Abrahamson is trying to find push pins to affix eight-by-ten glossies of the actors to a makeshift display board. The stage manager is on a ladder, messing around with lights.
One of the performers tells me, “I really want to thank you for your review. There were some elements of the play that we found especially offensive and we tried to get through to him, but he was defensive about it. Now, after the review, he’s taken the time to try and make the script more acceptable.”
Critics were unkind to The Brat Race. The Tribune savaged its songs and its ideology. A critic from Nightlines called it “nauseating.” After the first half I got pretty grossed out myself at the cheap shots at women, gays, Indians, and African Americans. A couple of examples: One of the parents saves a family on Devon Avenue and becomes the “leader of eight million Hindus,” her face plastered on Slurpee cups all over the world. The only black male character, a genetic researcher, laments his alderman wife’s taste for underwear that matches the sheets: “I thought I was fucking the bed.” And so on.
Abrahamson says the reviews were unfair and misleading; but taking some of the criticism to heart, he has returned with a show that he thinks will allow more people to catch the spirit of humorous social commentary that he intended. The show now opens with a catchy but perhaps overly obsequious number called “Politically Correct” in which the actors come out as themselves and apologize for anything offensive ahead. (“If it’s Lerner and Loewe you’re expecting to hum, Lerner ain’t in this show but we’re as low as they come!”)
The show is indeed milder, but the scenes between songs still drag and the focus still gets lost in act two. The best moments remain the songs. One of my favorites is a bluesy number called “Lakefront Liberals.” It’s sung by the genetic researcher about the hypocrisy of do-gooder Chicago Democrats:
I saw Joseph Goebbels at Barnes & Noble
Sipping Starbucks double latte with skim.
Though I was mighty pissed
After I saw Schindler’s List
I decided to sit down with him.
I said, “Joe, how can you still be alive?”
He said, “I’ve hid at this table since 1945.
It’s the last place old Wiesenthal ever would look,
‘Round these broads with careers and their men who can cook.”
Oh, you Lakefront liberals keep writing those checks
For Carol Braun, Paul Simon, and Dawn Clark Netsch,
And those op-ed letters ’bout political sleaze.
Doing all that writing when you’re gonna do right by me.
While walking my doberman, I saw Marty Oberman
Riding by on his ’63 Schwinn.
He said, “I’ve got half an hour to reach Cafe Brauer.
Eddie Eisendrath’s ailin’ so I’m fillin’ in
At a fund-raiser on for the ACLU
And the Children’s Memorial ball when it’s through.
I’d love to squeeze my brakes and converse,
But the CSO’s failing and the library’s worse . . .”
And so it goes.
A better idea of the script content may be had not by quoting from the play itself but by sampling the advice Abrahamson gives to the actors before the final dress rehearsal.
“Guys, couple things,” Abrahamson says. He’s pacing around, clipboard in hand, ponytail flapping in the breeze, and barking out instructions. “First of all, we have to hear the ds in ‘rude’ and ‘crude.’ It’s ru-de and cru-de. . . . Steve, can you come out to close Rhomeyn’s mouth before he says motherfucker. . . . Peg, I’m losing your energy on, They made me play a Jew. . . . On the line rectal, I want to hear rec-tal. Break it up a little bit more. . . . Andy, when you say Catholics I don’t want to hear the h.You come from the south side. It’s Cat’lics. . . . Now that line, honky in Hinsdale, make sure it’s in Hinsdale and not from Hinsdale, and when you say No, just rumaki take your time with it. . . . Andy, your first instincts with failure and genitalia were right.”
And before the actors begin the final run-through, Abrahamson utters the stage direction, “OK, take it from the Menendez Brothers!”
“It’s still the same play,” Terry Abrahamson admits. “People who hated it at first aren’t going to love it now.”
Stepping into Abrahamson’s home office is like going over to a fifth-grader’s house for a sleep-over. The place is a shambles of papers and posters and records. There are old 45s haphazardly fixed to the walls, pictures of blues and rock ‘n’ roll stars lying around. You can barely see the laptop computer on the mess Abrahamson calls his desk. You wonder where the stashes of baseball cards and board games might be located.
On the day The Brat Race opens, Abrahamson is still bristling from the charges of prejudice that have dogged the work. He understands the criticism, but he refuses to accept it. He finds it hard to believe that with his leftist politics, his long immersion in black culture, and his antiestablishment stances people could still perceive him as politically incorrect.
“When you talk about the racist stuff I can look at this, and if I can ask myself ‘What’s racist in here?’ I can say two things. Number one, only the black man says ‘fuck’ or ‘motherfucker.’ I have a theory on the use of the word ‘fuck’ by black people. It’s a word that is used in a much more casual way in the inner city in this country. . . . The word ‘fuck’ and the word ‘motherfucker’ are used in different ways in the black community than they are in the white. Maybe I’m too racist and I’m too close to this project, too blind to see beyond my own views, but the reason I used these words is because they were the best words to use. They are the words that this character would say.
“The other thing I thought could be construed as racist are the references to Indians and 7-Elevens,” Abrahamson says. “I wasn’t on a conscious level going for the Indian bashing. It’s just an easy yuk. . . . I wasn’t thinking here’s an opportunity to get some racist shtick, but once I got into it I thought these were funny little jokes. I’m admitting it. It’s not exonerating myself for any guilt I have for going down that path of using cheap laughs. I guess I can’t really defend myself.”
And as for his portrayal of Catholic priests as sodomizers, Abrahamson laughs. “You’re not the first person who has said this to me,” he winks. ‘Should you really be talking about that? Isn’t that kind of a touchy subject?’ No Catholic has ever said that to me. It’s only been Jews.
“This ain’t Death of a Salesman. It ain’t Les Miz,” Abrahamson says. “It’s taking a situation and finding the humor in it and getting people to laugh and maybe hum along with some of the tunes for a couple of hours and forget about their troubles. Beyond that, if there’s a message here it’s how people can take whatever their ethnic and life-style idiosyncrasies are and use them as a cross to bear when they have to and use it as a crowbar to open doors when they have to. That’s whatever message is in it.”
And besides, if the folks from Buffalo Grove start coming in droves to check out The Brat Race, he’ll be able to put the money to work on the tough projects, the serious projects, the political projects he still wants to produce.
“Sure,” Terry Abrahamson nods. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.