May 22– 29, 2015 was an incredible week of innovative art and theatre that heralded the promise of a plethora of ingenious and innovative perspectives to come. I caught the tail end of each event, but you should watch for these names and titles because they will be returning to a venue near you!
Painter, Sculptor, & Stained Glass Artist
The Brooklyn Museum presented A New Republic, an exploration of the profound and prolific career of Kehinde Wiley fourteen years in the making. Since 2001, Wiley (American, b. 1977) has been recreating historical portraits by celebrated “Old European Masters – intended to convey the status and power of the sitter – into monumental contemporary paintings that place black subjects front and center. He thereby draws attention to the absence of black men and women from traditional Western art history and from our cultural narratives.”
His work is so detailed and realistic, they seem to breathe. And like Rembrandt or Rockwell, Wiley features local people from around the way today. Case in point, one bronze bust of a clean-shaven, young black man with closely cropped waves holds his head high and dignified in a pose reminiscent of Geoffrey Holder… and he’s wearing a hoodie. Another bronzed brother with perfectly coiffed kinks could be a regal rendering of Ira Aldridge or Elridge Cleaver from the front, but in profile he becomes Pookie or Ray Ray with that Afro pick stuck in his hair. Napoleon astride a mighty, rearing steed with his raised hand pointing the way, in Wiley’s World, becomes a thickset brother (think Ice Cube) in the same pose, only wearing army fatigues, Timberland boots, and a headscarf. Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of Morpheus, a god of dreams, resting on a rock, becomes a painting of every young black man everywhere wearing a baseball cap, gold chain, and baggy jeans only half covering his behind. Kehinde’s stained glass works and paintings on 22-carat gold leafing are done in the style of the Renaissance and Byzantine eras and feature young black men in hip hop, urban-wear, replete with halos, doves, dark women-in-waiting, and chocolate angels.
“His deliberate riffs on art-historical masterpieces skillfully engineer a collision between past and present. Initiating timely conversation about race, gender, roles and politics of representation.”
Kehinde explains, “Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” Say yes to Kehinde Wiley!
Then Saturday, May 23rd, I saw…
Fathers & Sons, By Michael Bradford, Directed by Mary E. Hodges
The Negro Ensemble Company production of Fathers and Sons starred L. B. Williams, Harvey Gardner Moore, Marcus Naylor, and Briana Maia at the Davenport Theatre. It was reminiscent of the first-rate storytelling that made NEC the once reigning African-American theatre in America.
Playwright Michael Bradford has scripted a beautiful love story that rivals Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah and the like. Fathers and Sons opens with a young, loving couple in the middle of “happily ever after,” when suddenly unimaginable tragedy strikes. A series of flashbacks, present-day challenges, and one pesky phantom (L.B. Williams) reveal the strained relationships of a father (Marcus Naylor) that have spiraled down through generations until his son (Harvey Gardner Moore) struggles to stop the self-destruction and hold love close against insurmountable odds.
Director Mary E. Hodges orchestrated a stunning production where Yvette (Briana Maia) and Bernard (Harvey Gardner Moore) Goodwater’s love was palpable and the failing light and sound cues became unnecessary. “Together is what keeps us sane in the midst of frogs and blood falling out of the sky,” “What I got for you is greater than love. What I got is crazy trust that you will guard like the fifth battalion and you give me yours and I will keep it like the Alamo,” and “Nothing is ever going to be bigger than us” are some of the poetic and/or recurring pleas that championed keeping a rare and wonderful relationship.
On Sunday, May 24th , a small group of us drove to Washington DC to see…
The Blood Quilt, By Katori Hall, Directed by Kamilah Forbes
The Blood Quilt is a contemporary tale about the flotsam and jetsam of secrets, grudges, longings, joys and jealousies threatening to suffocate a dysfunctional family of four sisters and a second-generation daughter/niece after their mother/grandmother dies. The cast was a perfect ensemble that physically and emotionally looked and acted like a real family. Clementine (Tonye Patano) and Gio (Caroline Clay), the two oldest sisters opened the production with a riotous repartee that set the tone of the volatile, unpredictable nature of things to come when their sister Cassan (Nikiya Mathis), her daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou), and baby sister Amber (Meeya Davis) are added to the mix.
Playwright Katori Hall, tried to include everything under the sun as issues of deadbeat dads, baby daddies, true love, HIV/AIDS, Palestine versus Israel, LGBT, statutory rape, glaucoma, inheritance, entitlement, spiritual mysticism, magic and more, are touched upon and stitched together like a patchwork, crazy quilt. This is the third 2015 World Premiere of a Katori Hall play beginning with Our Lady of Kibeho at The Signature Theatre in New York City, Pussy Valley at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis and now The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage in Washington DC… and it’s not even June yet!
Director Kamilah Forbes artfully wove the characters in, out, and around the three levels of an intricately detailed set designed by Michael Carnahan.
The next day, Memorial Monday, May 26th, was spent in Brooklyn…
DanceAfrica, Memorial Day Festival and Outdoor Bazaar
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presented DanceAfrica’s final performance under the helm of Baba Chuck Davis, the founder and Artistic Director for 38 years. Then they presented a ceremonial passing of the leadership baton to his able compatriot Abdel R. Salaam.
The precious, rhythmically gifted children of the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble opened the program with a dazzling arrangement of West African dances, reminding us all why DanceAfrica was ultimately created. They were accompanied by the Bronx Bambara Drum and Dance Ensemble. The drums were a riveting production in and of themselves recalling our rich cultural heritage worthy of preservation and promotion. West African influences in Brazil were explored through capoeira, a martial art performed with lightening speed and alacrity, and through “Sacred Heritage” and “Puxada de Rede” (“Fishermen’s Dance”) two folkloric presentations that pay homage to African deities. Scores of people repeatedly rushed to lay money on the stage in high praise to particular dancers, drummers, and dance numbers throughout the entire program.
The closing, nearly four hours later, included gifts of posters and painted pictures, clothing and sculpture being presented to Baba Chuck Davis; the announcement of a Baba Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Scholarship to an aspiring performer; a video recap (that wound up being audio only); and Baba explaining that he will still be working to expand DanceAfrica from its current six city involvement to add another six cities within two years.
It was a particularly auspicious sendoff filled with adorations and adulations for a life well spent and a great mission accomplished. And it ain’t over yet!
Wednesday, May 28th I attended the Off Broadway production of…
The Glass Menagerie, By Tennessee Williams, Directed by Christopher Scott
The Masterworks Theater website states that their mission is “…to present accessible, professional productions of theatrical and literary heavyweights that are widely produced and studied in educational settings at affordable ticket prices to help ignite the audience for live theater for the next generation.” Artistic Director, Christopher Scott, added Wednesday night, that the casting of these classics would reflect our present day demographics. That said, this non-traditional cast featured: Saundra Santiago (Amanda) as the Latino mother; Richard Prioleau (Tom) and Olivia Washington (Laura) as her African American offspring; Doug Harris (Jim) as the Caucasian gentleman caller.
The beauty and power of non-traditional casting is that the message transcends and translates irrespective of race, culture, gender, and religion because it’s universal. Love is love, longing is longing, happiness, hate, joy and sorrow, etc. are all understood and felt regardless of the messenger if the story is solid. So the desperate loss and longing of a struggling Latino mother is not diluted because her drifting son and painfully shy adult daughter are black. The hope of security and stability through a possible husband for her socially challenged daughter that will also free her restless son from further obligations is still very real. It resonated even greater for me because it was performed outside conventional casting, much like a Kehinde Wiley non-traditionally cast portrait that “draws attention to the absence of black men and women from traditional Western art.”
Santiago was lovely as the brave-faced, angst-filled mother. I found Prioleau’s pouts and tantrums sometimes over the top, but charming (I may be prejudice since he recently played my son in a production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Washington’s painfully shy silences were precious, but her nervous fits were more performed than felt. Harris’s concern and compassion for Laura’s limitations were endearing.
Christopher Scott used every available space in directing this piece including entrances and exits from the audience that helped draw us in and make us an integral part of the story.
Bravo Masterworks’ maiden production. May your starlight shine as a beacon forever for theater enthusiasts young and old.