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Soon it’s time for a little ancient Greek drama, and the instructor begins by reading the dispute between Philosophy and Sophistry in Aristophanes’ The Clouds:

Philosophy: Why, you cheap, stunted Loquacity! You pipsqueak palaver!

Sophistry: I may be mere Sophistry, but I’ll chop you down to size. I’ll refute you.

Philosophy: Refute me? How?

Sophistry: With unconventionality. With ultramodernity. With unorthodox ideas.

Philosophy: In my day we would have cringed with shame.

Sophistry: Times change. The vices of your age are stylish today.

Philosophy: Repulsive Whippersnapper!

Sophistry: Disgusting Fogy!

“Okay, so what’s going on here?” the instructor, clad in jeans and a t-shirt, asks. The students are mute; the passage contains some unfamiliar words, and some of the teens are clearly unsure of how they’re supposed to answer.

Eventually one student ventures, “They’re insulting each other.”

“Right,” agrees the instructor. “They’re calling each other names. The older one is putting down the younger generation. Sounds familiar, right? And this play is over 2,000 years old.” A couple of students nod.

“Did you catch the rhythm in their exchange?” the instructor continues. “Did you hear the same rhythm between those two that we were making in the circle?” Another teen nods. “Bum-BAM-badda-BAM,” the teacher says. “So it’s like the Dozens1. You know, you insult me, I insult you back. Only it’s 2,000 years old. That’s the rhythm we want to get down when we do this piece.”

The nodding continues. The students may not understand all the vocabulary, but there’s no doubt that they’re beginning to “get” Aristophanes.


Note 1 : The Dozens, also known as the Dirty Dozens, is a form of verbal sparring that dates back at least to the turn of the century. Carried down through generations of African American culture, the Dozens is the forefather to the swaggering shout-outs of hip-hop.

 

The instructor is Jordan Simmons ’78, and he’s been the artistic director of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts for 15 years; for almost 20, he’s worked there as a faculty member and artist in residence. Before that he was a student at Reed, and before that he was a student at the center, a place he checked out when a knee injury kept him from high school wrestling. It’s a little hard to believe that Simmons has been around that long, because despite his five o’clock shadow and a couple of minor-league crow’s feet, Simmons has a youthful look and reserves of energy that could make Saudi Arabia envious.

Jordan Simmons ’78 and students at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts

Jordan Simmons ’78 and students at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts

 

When he speaks, there’s a touch of cholo to his timbre, a bit of the streetwise, but it’s no affectation. If the cadence and slang are Bed-Stuy, the content is Harvard Square: words like “rubric” and “valence” drop into his rap alongside references to Blake and quotes from Whitman. Those aren’t affectation, either. To keep the center flying on faith, hope, and charity requires Simmons to be part changeling and part Minnesota Fats, able to approach on equal terms a seventeen-year-old skeptic or a corporate donor. Not that Simmons is a con artist. But a good salesman, like an aikido master, makes use of his targets’ own momentum, and Simmons is consummate in knowing how to motivate people.

But getting 20 minutes of uninterrupted face time with him is as unlikely as getting William Rehnquist to breakdance. A steady stream of students, artists, and friends vie for his attention, almost all of whom offer me unsolicited encomiums about him. About the only Californian who doesn’t pop by with a few good words for Simmons is John C. Frémont, who’s been dead since 1890.

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Reed Magazine Feb. 2001

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