Book and Film Reviews
Reviewed by David Kornhaber, Columbia University
Weights – Written and Performed by Lynn Manning
Directed by Robert Egan
Urban Stages, 259 W. 30 St., New York City
January 9 – February 1, 2004
Writer and performer Lynn Manning describes his autobiographical one-man show Weights as a “personal journey from being a black man to being a blind man,” but an incident half way through complicates these easy identifications. Recently struck blind by a near-fatal gunshot to the head, Manning is denied entry to a job training program for the disabled. It is too soon after his injury, he is toldhe must first go through a grieving period. Manning does have a great deal of emotional upset still to overcome, but he also has no one to support him and as yet no means to support himself. The program's refusal to acknowledge any factors other than Manning's blindnessits insistence on seeing him only as a “blind man”proves far more harmful than helpful. It proves downright cruel.
As the incident illustrates, Weights is not so much about the journey from one identity to another as it is about learning to negotiate the spaces in between. Independent from one another, Manning's recollections about being a “black man” and being a “blind man” would provide little in the way of exceptional material. The stories of his life in South Central LA, which include a criminally negligent mother and a string of abusive step fathers, are sadly reminiscent of so many other tales of impoverishment and abuse. And the account of his progression from despair to empowerment after becoming blind retells a redemption myth that has been part of Western literature at least since Oedipus at Colonus, where blindness becomes the tragic experience par excellence the dreadful loss that begets transcendent wisdom.
In overlaying the two narratives, however, Manning achieves something unique. Juxtaposing his childhood struggle with poverty and abuse and his adult struggle with blindness, he avoids the heartbreaking redundancy of the one story and the archetypal mythos of the second. Instead we see the multiple factors that go into crafting personal identity at work. The single-minded dedication with which Manning approaches the daily tasks he must relearn after going blindwalking, reading, even using the toilethelps to temper and channel the remaining anger from his boyhood experiences. The discrimination he faces as an impoverished inner city youth, in turn, prepares him to deal with the stereotypes he encounters as a blind man. And when Manning at last finds a community of blind artists and writers whom he can befriend, we know that his joy is not simply that of finding other people “like him.” It is the joy of finding the family that he never knew before.
Weights could perhaps only work as a one-man show, a form much abused for its economic virtues. Manning's performance is not so much about the stories that he tells, which could easily be acted out by an ensemble cast, but about their interplay within him, about the cumulative effect that they have had on his outlook and his sense of self. To describe Manning as a “blind man,” to limit him to a single physical trait, is to miss the point. He is the product not of one violent moment but of an entire personal history. Indeed, it might seem that Manning chose the one-person form for its aural nature and consequent conduciveness to blind audiences, but he has, in fact, taken pains to make certain that the performance does not privilege either blind or sighted spectators. Combining an evocative sound design and a penchant for poetic description with an extensive vocabulary of gesture and movement, Manning aims to provide a rich theatrical experience for all audience members.
Ultimately, Manning decides to reject the employment program that insists on a period of grieving, as they only would train him for a menial position. The proposition of limiting all the country's blind men and women to unskilled labor seems laughably absurd, though Manning never makes this point directly. He doesn't need to. In Weights, his personal story provides argument enough against constraining classifications of all kinds. Identity, Manning contends, is a matter too important to be left to any single trait. Identity is something we must come to construct for
From The Hollywood Reporter By Jay Reiner
April 2, 2001
Taper, Too at the Actors' Gang, Hollywood
Through April 15
In 1978, Lynn Manning took an unsolicited bullet to the head from a crazed Patron in a Hollywood bar. Only 23 and a budding visual artist, Manning lost his sight and crossed over to a new identity — or, as he puts it in his mesmerizing one-man show, he went from being black to being blind. In “Weights,” the first production of the Taper, Too's new season at the Actors' Gang, Manning brings us face to face with the unusual meaning of that fateful event.
If Manning has lived the sort of life a poet can tell best, it's ironic that he had to become blind Homer to tell it. But where Homer gave us the wine-dark sea, wandering Odysseus and the topless towers of Ilium, Manning gives us the mean streets of L.A., a childhood straight out of hell and a liberation entirely of his own making. Of the two odysseys, Manning's may well be the more harrowing and, in its own way, the more heroic.
Standing before us rock-solid and trim (he is a former world champion of blind judo), Manning displays a special talent for capturing the raw feel of everyday experience.
Poetry winds through the narrative of his life story so subtly, it's often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. In part that's because everything out of Manning's mouth carries the cadence and crispness of language used to its best advantage. At times he weaves a web of words that begins hard and strong but turns so seductively sensuous, it's like watching a spider spin steel into silk.
Playing off the central event of his blinding, Manning gradually acquaints us with the brutal facts of his childhood. As the violence, drinking and betrayal in his parents' unraveling relationship increased, so did the miseries of the children. At one point, he and his eight siblings were living in abject poverty and were neglected to the point of near-starvation. McLaren Hall and six foster homes were a welcome relief. Eventually, Manning learned that the man he once idolized as his father was not and, even worse, had sexually molested a younger brother and sister. So it was, to say the least, another cruel twist of fate when Manning walked into that Hollywood bar wearing a spiffy Panama hat and wound up being carried out sightless with a bullet lodged in his skull.
Manning tells a story here that he clearly relishes. He once asked himself, in view of the many calamities to have befallen him, what was the worst possible blow he could still suffer, and blindness was the answer. As a result, he had begun to practice being blind, just in case. This helps explain why, much to the concern of his caseworker, he showed no inclination to grieve his blindness but instead seemed eager to get on with his new life. In fact, he seems to have welcomed his new identity, as if it presented him the opportunity to start life again — only this time, he would be sole master of his destiny. His life as a blind man and writer is the show's final destination. The struggle for independence, the rear arrangement of sensory priorities, the added pleasures of lovemaking, the cane, the wit, the half-wits — Manning is a wonderful guide into this new reality. “Weights” is the sort of show you desperately wish someone didn't have to write. But if someone has to write it — and he did — we're extremely fortunate it was Lynn Manning. Robert Egan is the unobtrusive, savvy director.
Los Angeles Times – Theater Review By Michael Phillips, Times Theater Critic
Presented by Center Theater Group
Mark Taper Forum
Playwright/performed by: Lynn Manning
Director: Robert Egan
Set designer: Akeime Mitterlehner
Costume designer: Candice Cain
Lighting designer: Geoff Korf
Composer/sound designer: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg
DJ/sound designer: Al Jackson
Actors' Gang Lifts Gut-Twisting 'Weights'
The autobiographical tale by Lynn Manning is filled with horror and joy, abuse and poetry.
The night a stranger shot him in the eye, Lynn Manning was coming off a “smog-free. picture-postcard day in Los Angeles,'' full of good prospects: a job promotion as house director of a boys' home; a scheduled reunion later that evening with an ex-girl-friend; at the bar, a little while before the shooting, killer rounds of pinball. Then came the encounter with-someone itching to teach Manning some “respect.” Each of us leads a multiplicity of lives, marked by dreams deferred and unexpected ones realized. “Weights,” Manning's compelling solo, neither bears down nor stints on the wrenching details of one man's life. The show is back . for an encore at the Actors' Gang under the Taper, Too banner, after last summer's successful debut. There's enough adversity and ' hard-won inspiration in Manning's story for several evenings of autobiographical storytelling. This one, directed by Robert Egan, gathers momentum and poetic strength as it goes; Manning's choicest descriptions give weight to “Weights.” Early on, storm clouds darken the sky “like a new bruise.” Later, months into his life as a blind person, Manning eloquently recounts the sensual experience of making love to a woman he “can only know in the absence of light.” The stuff of Manning's childhood is gut-twisting: alcoholism, sexual abuse and a cashed-out sense of the future, intertwined-with happier times and a stubborn optimism. At a low point, with his mother off on a bender for three days, the two oldest kids (including Manning) fed their younger siblings margarine and. sugar sandwiches, saving what milk they had for the infant children. Tales of abuse involving Manning's sometime stepfather and two of the kids shatter the young man's trust. Eerily, Manning as a young adult foresees his own blinding; his ideal, after all, is to become a painter living in Paris. After this particular childhood, such casual fatalism comes all too naturally. Yet from all this, Manning has emerged a rich storyteller. “Weights” mixes up the chronology of his full-to-bursting life, blending childhood incidents with the events leading up to the shooting and with the subsequent, often disarmingly funny, adjustment to blindness. (The white cane, he says, proved “a magnet for religious weirdos of every denomination.'') There are moments in “Weights” when the poetics begin to pile up, when Manning seems hellbent on topping the last dozen similes and metaphors with the next dozen. The observations could use a little breathing room. They're backed here by the musical score and accompaniment of Karl Fredrik Lundeberg, who favors cinematic-inflected “danger” guitar fills, which don't help the veracity of what we're hearing. (Al Jackson's DJ work fares far better.) There's always a question to be answered with an inherently dramatic autobiography such as “Weights”: How much theater can the material take before the trappings turn against it? Manning and Egan give it a fair amount. But they've wisely let the story sell itself, while bending and reshaping the order of that story effectively. We're left with a man who did more than live to tell it. He found a way to tell it well.
By Adam Feldman
Written and performed by Lynn Manning.
Directed by Robert Egan.
Scenic design by Akeime Mitterlehner.
Costumes by Candice Cain.
Lighting by Geoff Korf.
Composer and sound designer Karl Fredrik Lumdeberg.
DJ and sound designer Al Jackson.
Weights By Lynn Manning. Dir. Robert Egan.
With Manning. Urban Stages (see Off Broadway).
Lynn Manning once was lost, but now is found; could see, but now is blind. These are the twin narratives that lift Weights, a solo show produced by Theater by the Blind that arrives at Urban Stages after well-received stints in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.. Manning lost his sight in 1978, at the age of 23, when a petty bar fight escalated into gunfire: (He still has a bullet lodged in his skull) But Weights is no cry for sympathy, and Manning hardly seems to need it. Tall, handsome and powerfully built, he looks much younger than his nearly 50 years, and has accepted his disability with a kind of brash grace. The saddest sections of Weights deal not with blindness but with Manning's harrowing childhood in South Central Los Angeles, when his unstable young mother, an abusive drunkard, would abandon her nine kids for days at a stretch. Manning skips over a central piece of this story–his transformation, before the shooting, from juvenile delinquent to youth counselor–and there are sections of the show, especially toward the beginning, in which the strut of his language seems forced. But there are moments, too, of real eloquence. Manning is most effective when he shifts into freestyle verse, accompanied by a guitarist on the side of the stage: He gives a memorable account of his first romantic experience without sight, navigating his partner's body by touch, from her hair to the back of her knees; and he is rhetorically powerful on the subject of his perceived transformation from black man to blind man, “from 'white man's burden' to every man's burden.” In passages such as these, Manning helps the audience to see the world through his own shattered lens.
First Came Sudden Darkness, Followed by Enlightenment – By Anita Gates
Published: January 27, 2004
Lynn Manning is a big guy. He's 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds, with the upper arms of a bodybuilder. So you might think “Weights,” his touching one-man show, which runs through Feb. 1 at Urban Stages, is a literal reference to gym equipment. But it's about a kind of emotional weight training that has made it possible for him to live well and happy as a blind man.
In 1978 Mr. Manning was a cocky 23-year-old with a new job and a hot date when he dropped into a Los Angeles bar. He left in an ambulance, having been shot in the head by a stranger who had taken a dislike to him.
His identity in the world's view changed that day, he reflects, from black man to blind man. “From rape-driven misogynist to poor motherless child,” he says. And “from `white man's burden' to every man's burden.”
Mr. Manning, a playwright and fledgling screenwriter, is a take-charge but affable performer, and his is a poignant story. At 29, his alcoholic mother has nine children and leaves them, including infant twins, alone for a day or two at a time. They end up in foster care. As a teenager Lynn is sent to a home for troubled boys and is so successfully rehabilitated that he now works there. His dream is to become a painter and work in Paris.
Mr. Manning's point is how well he handles his personal disaster. Three weeks after the shooting a rehabilitation agency refuses him services because, it says, he hasn't gone through the grieving process yet. Yes I have, he says; I'm used to loss, so I'm a fast learner. He's a whiz at Braille and is thrilled to learn how to walk with a cane with the proper coordination of tapping and stepping.
“It feels a little dorky at first, but I catch on,” he says. “I've got natural rhythm. I'll figure a way to make it look cool later.”
Like others who have lost one of their physical senses, Mr. Manning finds others intensified. “I had never noticed that sound moves the way it does or feels the way it does,” he says. “And what about this pulse, this radiation that flows from all things?” It takes a strong person to recognize it.
By Lynn Manning; directed by Robert Egan; sound design and musical direction, Gary Bergman; other design and stage manager, Steven White; production manager,
Martin Graves. Presented by Theater by the Blind, George Ashiotis and Ike Schambelan, artistic directors. At Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, Manhattan.
With: Lynn Manning.