Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Reborning" at Urbanite Theatre

I admit to going into Urbanite Theatre's "Reborning" with a bit of trepidation.  The show is about an artist who makes hyper-realistic dolls and a customer anxious to recreate her past.  Hmmm.  Not a description that would typically make me think, "I must see this show."  And the ad for "Reborning" with its picture of a doll that I mistook for a real baby kind of freaked me out. But Dorrit and I had our tickets in hand, so we headed off to Sarasota to find out what this show was all about.

When we entered the tiny theater, I immediately noticed that the guy sitting in front of me was holding a baby.  Upon further study, I realized that it was not an infant at all, but a doll.  (I know, I should have been onto this by now!)  I had to find out what the story was.  Anthony Spinelli is a jeweler by day who sculpted the silicone "Rebecca" as a prototype. Completely apart from Urbanite's staging of "Reborning, Spinelli discovered that hyper-realistic dolls can go for big bucks (up to $15,000) and decided to have a go at it.  Four months later, Rebecca was "born."  He let me hold her, and the moment she was in my arms I began rocking her as if she were a real baby.  It was just a natural instinct after being given a 9 1/2 pound sculpture whose little hands had all the wrinkles of a real baby and whose eyes looked up at me engagingly. (For the record, Dorrit had the same reaction when she held her.)  The only "issue" with Rebecca is that her coloring is a bit off.  Spinelli agreed that he had been a bit too liberal with the white paint when working on his creation. The skin under Rebecca's skull cap, though, is the rosy color of a healthy infant, and he plans to go with a more natural tint for his next "baby." This chance encounter truly set the stage for a powerful evening of theater. 

The play opens with heavy metal music blasting and the smell of a burning joint in the air.  Kelly (played to perfection by Megan Rippey) leans over a doll with a pair of tweezers in her hand.  The disturbing image of a single eye on which she is meticulously placing a set of eyelashes is projected on the screen above her.  Kelly's work is interrupted by a buzzer.  Emily, a customer, has dropped by a day early to pick up her doll.  Kelly rushes around spraying room freshener and changing the music to Brahms' soothing lullaby to create a nursery vibe. 

Over the next 90 minutes, we learned both how Kelly came to create "reborn" babies and what drove Emily to seek her out. As with Urbanite's production of "Chicken Shop," I found myself engrossed in the story and almost breathless at times from its intensity.  The acting was superb (something I am rapidly coming to expect from Urbanite). The staging was terrific, too, and its use of the overhead screen gave the audience the chance to see the artistic process through Kelly's eyes.  Overall, a top notch production. 

"Reborning" is playing through July 5th, so there's still time for theater lovers to take in this show. 

Next up at Urbanite is "Isaac's Eye" by Lucas Hnath. Hnath blends history and fantasy in this tale envisioning what drove a young Isaac Newton to explore the relationship between light and optics by inserting a needle "between my eye and the bone, as near to the backside of my eye as I could."  It promises to be another compelling night of theater.  I can't wait. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series at MOMA, Part 2

Seeing all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series in one place makes for a great exhibit in and of itself. MOMA has taken the show to a different level, though, with the inclusion of multi-media components that enhance the viewer's experience and an exhibit website that is truly phenomenal.

After taking in Lawrence's series, I crossed the threshold to a small room featuring music from Harlem in the 1930's. Louis Amstrong's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" was playing, and I realized how easy it is to listen to music without really hearing the lyrics or thinking about their meaning. Here's a sample from "Black and Blue":

I'm hurt inside, but that don't help my case
Cause I can't hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain't got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

MOMA has thoughtfully provided a cushioned bench where you can sit and take in the musical selections. Other songs include Fats Waller performing "African Ripples," Bessie Smith with "Gimme a Pigfoot" and Joshua White with "Jim Crow Train." For the complete Great Migration playlist, click here.

For a tie-in with the literary arts, MOMA commissioned ten contemporary poets to write poems in response to Lawrence's Migration Series. (I love our local Art Poems collaboration between artists and poets, so I was all over this aspect of the show.)

Panel 10
Poet Rita Dove was inspired by Panel 10 of Lawrence's series, which is simply entitled, "They were very poor." 

SAY GRACE by Rita Dove

Got a spoon
Got a pan
Got a bucket for the scraps

Got a nail to hang our things on
A wish
An empty sack

Dear Lord bless our little bit
This table
Our beds

Dear Lord who made us
And the world
Now can we raise our heads

The website includes audio links to the poets reading their works, which adds yet another dimension.  To read more of the Migration Series Poetry Suite, click here.

Panel 3
The exhibit website also develops the historical and cultural context for each panel. (Click here to get to the site's home page.) Take, for instance, Panel 3, captioned "In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern Industry."  The website description of Panel 3 discusses the contrast between the ease of the birds' migration and that of the Negroes. It then goes on to talk about cultural references to African Americans as blackbirds and crows, Jim Crow laws, blackface performers, and racial stereotypes in Disney movies. Click here to read more about this panel (and to hear Lonnie Johnson and Raymond Boyd sing their 1927 song "Blackbird Blues.")

Panel 45

If you want to really delve into the subject of the Great Migration, the "Perspectives" tab of the website contains video interviews with artists, historians, curators and filmmakers about the themes developed in Lawrence's work. I listened to an interview with Chef Marcus Samuelsson who, among other things, owns the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. Samuelsson talked about migrants bringing food with them on their journey north because they were prohibited from eating in the dining cars and the ways the migrants' eating habits had to change when they moved to an urban environment. (I was interested in his comment that Southern traditions are making a resurgence today with the farm-to-table movement.)  He also relayed the tradition of "rent parties." If someone was having difficulty paying his rent, he might invite people over for some food and entertainment. In exchange, the guests would pitch in money for that month's rent.  Food was then, as it is now, a cornerstone of community. 

While it's well worth making a trip to MOMA to see this exhibit, the Museum has made it possible for everyone to contemplate Lawrence's Migration Series and its context in American history. And for people like me who have seen the show, the website provides an opportunity to deepen the experience. Kudos to the Museum for taking advantage of today's technology in this way.  

"One Way Ticket" runs through September 7th. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MOMA, Part 1

I was introduced to Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series a couple of years ago when the Tampa Museum of Art hosted an exhibit of works from The Phillips Collection. I distinctly remember turning a corner and discovering five folk art style paintings depicting the migration of African-Americans to the North that began during WWI.  I was struck by the power of the story despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the works.

The artist--Jacob Lawrence--created a series of 60 paintings that portrays both the reasons for and the consequences of the multi-decade migration. Shortly after their creation, the panels were purchased by MOMA and The Phillips Collection and divided, with the even-numbered panels going to MOMA and the odd-numbered to The Phillips. I've since had the chance to see all of The Phillips Collection's paintings, and it was a treat.  So when I learned that MOMA had the entire series on display during my recent trip to New York, I hightailed it to the exhibit. I was not disappointed.

Harriet Tubman by Jacob Lawrence
Along the way, I learned some interesting tidbits about Jacob Lawrence:
--Lawrence, who was only 23 when he painted the Migration Series, had already completed extensive series of paintings about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Touissant L'Ouverture. 
--Lawrence received a $1500 fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation to create the series.
--Lawrence's parents were among the 6 million people who participated in the migration.  He was born in Atlantic City and had never been to the South before he painted the series. He researched the topic at the Schomberg Collection in Harlem. 
--Lawrence was the first African-American artist to be represented by a New York gallery.  His Migration Series was displayed at the Downtown Gallery upon its completion.
--In 1993, Lawrence rewrote the captions for the paintings in connection with a national tour of the series. MOMA has a bank of computers where you can view a more detailed description of each painting, the 1941 caption and the 1993 caption.

Panel 1

Viewing all of the works in progression is a powerful and thought-provoking experience.  The fact that the works have narrative captions rather than brief titles makes the exhibit read like a book. Panel 1 explains, "During World War I, there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." Panel 60 simply says, "And the migrants kept coming." The story unfolds in the intervening paintings.

Panel 4

Having never seen the even-numbered panels, I found myself particularly drawn to them. Panel 4 is captioned, "The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found after all others had been exhausted." The more detailed description of the work commented on the contrast between the man displayed in this panel and the depictions on WPA posters and murals of burly workers happily heaving their tools. (As a side note, Lawrence was a WPA artist himself for 18 months.  He was required to turn in two paintings every six weeks in exchange for $95.44 in pay.)

Panel 38

Panel 38 is a simple picture of a railroad track and is labeled, "They also worked in large numbers on the railroad."  The railroad was a crucial part of the migration, both as a means of transportation and as an industry that provided work for the migrants. And, of course, there's an underlying reference to the Underground Railroad on which many African-Americans traveled in an earlier time. 

Panel 50

Although life was generally better in the North, there were still issues. Panel 50 depicts the race riots that occurred when African-American workers took jobs from white workers, sometimes in the role of strike breakers. African-American homes were also bombed in protest. Cramped living conditions resulted in many migrants contracting tuberculosis. 

And yet the migrants kept coming.

To see a complete set of the Migration Series (with commentary and both sets of captions), click here.

Next up:  Multi-media components of the exhibit

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Books in the Queue from 2015 BEA

With 85 new books in my possession, it's hard to figure out what to read first.  (It's a nice problem to have, though!)  Here are some of the books from this year's Book Expo America that have made it to my nightstand:

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (out in August) --  First up on my reading list is this debut novel about a young woman who becomes a legendary chef in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.  The first pages drew me in (and made me laugh) as I read about a chef planning his soon-to-be-born baby daughter's first meals.  "Week One (No Teeth, So):  1. Homemade guacamole.  2.  Pureed prunes (do infants like prunes?) .... 7.  Olive tapenade (maybe with pureed Cerignola olives?) ..."  The new father was quite disappointed when he learned his daughter would have to be two years old before sampling his menu. With this upbringing, it's no surprise the daughter grows up to be a culinary whiz.  I'm eager to join her on her journey. 

The Silver Swan by Elena Deblanco (available now) -- This story about a world-famous cellist, his talented daughter and a rare Stradivarius has struck a chord with me.  Perhaps it was meeting the author, who was elegant yet down-to-earth.  Perhaps it's the beautiful book cover.  Maybe it's my developing appreciation of cello music (compliments of our Charlotte  Symphony Orchestra). Whatever the reason, I'm looking forward to reading this book inspired by Deblanco's musings about what might have happened to the ex-Paganini Stradivarius cello owned by her father, cellist Bernard Greenhouse, upon his death.  (Click here to read a nice review of The Silver Swan from the Washington Post.)

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (out in January) -- I've become a fan of YA (young adult) books.  Not the kind with giggling girls worrying if Johnny is going to ask them to the prom or the dystopian books that were all the rage (although I did love The Hunger Games series).  But there are lots of YA books dealing with real issues that confront young people, both today and in the past. And when these issues are addressed by a talented author, I'm all in. Anna and the Swallow Man looks to be one of these books.  This slim novel is set in 1939 Krawkow and tells the story of Anna, a seven year old girl whose father has been taken by the Germans in their purge of intellectuals.  Left alone, Anna meets The Swallow Man, a mysterious stranger who helps her avoid discovery. The publishers' representatives tempted me--and set the bar high--with their comparison to The Book Thief.  My fingers are crossed.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison (out in September) -- A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Evison's The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving at BEA.  It was a good read -- quirky, funny and touching in one fell swoop.  And so I made sure to be there this year when Algonquin handed out galleys of Evison's This is Your Life, Harriet Chance. The book tells the story of a 79-year old woman who sets off on an Alaskan cruise two years after her husband dies.  It's apparently a journey that proves a bit more eventful than expected as Harriet discovers she's been living the past sixty years under a misconception.  While I know there's commerce involved in an author's endorsement of a book, I did notice that Maria Semple calls this book "sweet, inventive, profound and hilarious."  (In case you don't know Semple's name, she wrote the wildly funny Where'd You Go, Bernadette.) I'm intrigued -- and given the number of people I know here who enjoy cruising, I expect this will be a good book to share. 

And now it's time to curl up and get reading. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Qualms at Playwrights Horizon

What would a trip to New York be without some theater?  Happily, I was able to piggyback on Wendi’s subscription to Playwrights Horizon to see the engaging and conversation-provoking production of The Qualms by Bruce Norris. 

Playwrights Horizon is “a writer’s theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary playwrights…and to the production of their new work.”  The theater’s 44 year track record is impressive. Six Pulitzer Prize winners can be counted among its progeny, including Norris’ Clybourne Park.  To add to the anticipation, Wendi had chosen with a performance with a talkback featuring PH’s artistic director Tim Sanford, director Pam MacKinnon and Norris himself.  

The Qualms is a one scene, 94 minute play that tells the story of a get-together of four swinging couples.  Correction -- three swinging couples and one couple exploring the idea. The ‘70s concept of throwing keys into a bowl and drawing the keys of your partner for the evening was given a nod with a bowl where cell phones were laid to rest.  It was up to the club “members,” however, to figure out who would head off with whom. 

I don’t want to say too much about the play because I expect that, like Clybourne Park, it will have an extended run in New York followed by productions in regional theaters. I can tell you, though, that Norris explores the topic with a huge amount of humor while raising the question of why partner swapping is appealing to some people.  And while this might not sound like an issue that would resonate, Wendi and I found ourselves (and Lee, who didn’t see the show) still talking the next day about polygamy, polyamorous relationships, “wife” swapping and old-fashioned monogamy. 
The stellar and highly credentialed cast deserves mention.  The actors worked as a true ensemble, with all eight actors onstage for almost the entire show.  While I didn’t recognize the name Jeremy Shamos, I recognized his face (although I can’t say whether it was from theater or TV shows like “The Good Wife” and “Elementary”).  Shamos was wonderful as the uptight newcomer to the group. Donna Lynne Champlin seemed to channel Melissa McCarthy in her role as the overweight participant who’s found acceptance. Champlin too has appeared in “The Good Wife” and is in the new show “Younger.” And it was fun to see Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman in “The Americans,” in a different persona.  

Pam MacKinnon, Bruce Norris and Tim Sanford
The talkback provided some wonderful insights into the inspiration for the play and some of the challenges in its mounting.  Norris explained that he had seen the documentary “The Lifestyle” more than a dozen years ago and couldn’t figure out why it troubled him so much. He’s a liberal guy and generally takes a “live and let live” attitude. 

Although Norris ultimately comes down against "swinging," Norris views the practice as both a hopeful and utopian approach to the world.  Doesn't it ignore human nature, though, he asked?  Isn't it complicated enough to try and manage one relationship?  (At this juncture Norris shared a hilarious story of his fourth grade "girlfriend" who scarred him for life when she broke up with him by throwing his ID bracelet at him during crossing guard duty.  He apparently wasn't capable of living up to her expectations.) 
MacKinnon's directorial perspective on the play was fascinating.  She talked about directing the actors’ simultaneous conversations as being akin to conducting an eight piece chamber orchestra.  The "note"/actor whose voice is loudest at the end becomes the person the audience naturally follows, so she played with that during the rehearsal process. Click here to read more from MacKinnon and Norris about the show. 

The Qualms  is a thoroughly engaging show with or without the treat of a post-show talkback.  If you're in the New York area between now and July 12, get to Playwrights Horizon to check it out.  And I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a regional run in the not-too-distant future. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Editors' Buzz Books at BEA 2015

Book Expo America 2015 is in the books--and I have the aching back and sore feet to prove it! After three days of lugging books and logging miles in the Javits Center, I'll be returning home with dozens of galleys of books to be released in the upcoming months.   

One of the most fun things about BEA is having the chance to hear editors talk about the books about to be birthed with their loving care. And so Wendi and I continued the tradition of attending the Editors' Buzz panel to hear these special midwives' take on their babies.

Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy (Picador -- presenter Anna de Vries -- available in September) --  As you might expect, Black Man in a White Coat is a non-fiction book about the issues facing African-American patients and physicians in today's world. While the issues clearly warrant discussion, de Vries was unsuccessful in motivating me to delve into the subject. (She actually read her presentation, which didn't help.) It was an unusual choice to kick off the Buzz Panel and made me wonder--as I do each year--about the selection process.  My guess is that it was the committee's nod to current events.  The book will not be leaving on a jet plane with me come Monday. 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf - presenter Diana Miller -- available in October) -- City on Fire was the big book of BEA in many ways.  It weighs in at 927 pages--longer than last year's hit The Goldfinch--but that didn't stop 12 editors from different publishing houses from vying for publication rights. The press has reported a $2 million advance to Hallberg for his story about a group of people who come together in 1970s New York City in the wake of a shooting. Miller's passion for this book made me want to grab a copy and start reading right then and there. I was intrigued by her comment that readers disagree as to which person is the story's main character and that your choice will tell you something about yourself. Miller ended her talk by saying she is jealous of people who haven't read City of Fire yet because they have such a fabulous reading experience ahead of them.  I can't wait to dig in. 

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin --presenter Scott Moyers -- available in August) -- Moyers started his presentation by saying that City on Fire is a wonderful novel and that he hadn't been looking forward to pitching his book after Miller. He made a valiant effort, though, as he shared his enthusiasm for Moshfegh's novel about a woman who has been "damaged by the world." Moyers gave us a sense of Eileen's character by revealing a scene in which she steals a book with pictures of death masks. Eileen then uses the masks as models for the way she would like to present herself to the world. (Yes, creepy.)  I didn't get a strong sense of the plot line but do know that Eileen makes her living working in a boys' prison.  I am on the fence about reading this dark novel. 

Home is Burning by Dan Marshall (Flatiron Books -- presenter Colin Dickerman -- available in October) -- Dickerman acknowledged upfront that his description of Home is Burning would not make readers want to run out and get a copy. (He apparently had some persuading to do at Flatiron as well, where he ended up imploring, "Just read it!")  At its heart, the book tells the story of a man who goes home to take care of his sick mom and dying dad. Sounds pretty uplifting, I know. Dickerman is a good salesman, though, and his comparable synopses of Angela's Ashes and Running with Scissors effectively made the point that sometimes you do just have to read a book to understand why it's so compelling. What makes Home is Burning marketable is that Marshall tells Team Terminal's story with a lot of humor. He shares, for instance, that his non-Mormon family liked to irritate their Utah neighbors by opening the windows and swearing loudly. (Note the book cover.)  Dickerman describes the book as "Brutal. Funny. Brutally funny." One reviewer says, "Dave Eggers meets David Sedaris in this uproariously funny, unflinchingly honest and tender memoir." A film deal is in the works. Although I don't read a lot of non-fiction, Home is Burning is on my "to read" list. 

in a dark, dark wood by Ruth Ware (Scout Press -- presenter Alison Callahan -- available in August) -- Scout Press is a new literary imprint "dedicated to being on the lookout for modern storytellers." in a dark, dark wood is the house's first publication, and Callahan was clearly thrilled at being part of the Buzz panel.  Because the book is a psychological thriller, Callahan didn't tell us much other than that the story has all female characters and the protagonist is an intensely private crime writer who goes by three different names. She compared the book to The Silent Wife, Before I Go to Sleep, Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Her comment to the men in the audience was that if their wives are reading these books, make sure to bring them flowers.  I'm a bit off thrillers these days, but this is a book I'll pick up when the mood strikes. 

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway (Grand Central Publishing -- presenter Deb Futter -- available in October) -- The Three-Year Swim Club tells a little known story about a teacher in Maui who, in 1937, launched a program to teach a group of Japanese-American kids how to swim.  One hundred children learned, with one towel among them and a filthy irrigation ditch as their pool. Their goal:  to represent the United States in the Olympic Games.  While the Games were cancelled due to WWII, the story of these children is a part of our history long-overdue in the telling.  Futter compared the book to Unbroken and Boys in the Boat.  I'm giving The Three-Year Swim Club to a friend.     

As always, I came away from the Buzz panel both appreciative of the work that goes into getting an author's story out into the world and eager to get reading.   So many books, so little time. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dali & da Vinci - Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet

"American Neighbors" by Roger Shimomura (1996)
When Janice and I headed to St. Pete last week, our primary destination was the Museum of Fine Arts.  I'd never been to the Museum before, and its current exhibit entitled "Monet to Matisse on the French Coast" sounded worth the journey. We enjoyed the Museum, which is the equivalent of a Whitman's sampler with small collections of everything from Renaissance art to Modernism. The Monet to Matisse exhibit, though, was not particularly exciting. In fact, my favorite visual of the day was a contemporary work in the exhibit on Japanese woodblock prints -- "American Neighbors" by Roger Shinomura.

And so we were glad we had decided to add the Dali Museum to our adventure.  Janice had never been to the Dali before, and  I was interested in the Dali & da Vinci exhibit.  While I always love visiting the Dali, I didn't have high expectations for the da Vinci show. Both the Warhol and Picasso exhibits at the Dali were interesting, but nothing worth writing home (or blogging) about.  (Having said that, it was a Dali-esque experience to do a "screen test" a la Warhol in connection with that exhibit. Click here to get a sense of how painfully long five minutes can be.)

Dali at International Surrealism Exhibition
The brochure for the exhibit explains that both Dali & da Vinci "shared an ambition to use the tools of art to explore the whole of the human experience." Of course, their approaches to accomplishing this goal were somewhat different. 

When we entered the gallery, I was drawn to a small (kind of creepy) recreation of an underwater breathing apparatus that da Vinci had designed.  On the adjacent wall was this picture of Dali wearing the diving suit in which he delivered a lecture at the London International Surrealism Exhibition in 1936.  (Dali apparently almost suffocated during the presentation and had to be released from the suit by a fellow participant.)  Why, you might ask, would he lecture in this gear? Because "artists, like deep sea divers, explore the unconscious to surface hidden treasures of the mind.
Dalinian Analysis of Famous Artists

Janice and I got a huge kick out of Salvador's "Dalinian Analysis" of the work of 12 artists, including himself.  He rated renowned artists from da Vinci to Picasso to Vermeer in nine categories like color, originality and composition.  Dali awarded da Vinci a score of 20, the highest possible mark, for genius, mystery and authenticity.  In fact, with a maximum possible score of 180, da Vinci received a 166.  Dali awarded himself an aggregate score of 148; Mondrian's total was 4.  

Rendering of "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955)
Given Dali's respect for da Vinci, it wasn't surprising to find that Dali tipped his hat to him on several occasions -- sometimes even in a serious way. Dali's Masterwork "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" is his homage to da Vinci's "The Last Supper."  This rendering was displayed with a copy of da Vinci's work and the red lines show how the compositions of the works align.  The work is done in a style Dali referred to as "nuclear mysticism." 
Halsman's "Dali as Mona" (1954)

Dali is Dali, though, and he sometimes couldn't resist his creative impulses. With the help of photographer Philip Halsman, Dali became da Vinci's Mona Lisa.  This 1954 photograph seems to reference Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.", a work in which the Dadaist gave Mona a moustache and goatee. Dali takes it a step further, imposing his own eyes and moustache on the work along with his hairy hands clutching some gold coins.  When Halsman asked Dali what he saw when he looked at the photo he responded by saying -- with reference to the money -- "a paragon of beauty."  (For a hilarious look at other artists' take on Mona, click here.)

The Dali-daVinci exhibit runs through July 26th.  Check it out if you get the chance.