Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 4
Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.
VOLUME 4: JUNE 8, 2020
During a tumultuous week we will never forget, Blackout Tuesday simply formalized the pause many of us have taken, as we’ve struggled to think harder and better about the relationship between aesthetics and politics – the art we create and consume, in relation to the unjust society in which it exists.
Many of this week’s selections wrestle with this tension, proving anew what the Greeks intuitively understood: theater not only allows us to interpret the world, but also inspires us to change it.
What online streaming is inspiring you to imagine all that theater is and the world can be? As always, I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me directly at email@example.com. Thanks for reading.
Before moving into this week’s five picks, here’s two brief bonus selections. Both were made before the horrific events of the past few months; both were newly released this past week in express solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
First, Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of the Broadway cast of Hamilton channel the ghosts of Langston Hughes and Bob Marley, in offering a new vision of what it would take for America to be truly beautiful: WATCH
Second, composer Jason Robert Brown accompanies NaTasha Yvette Williams, singing Brown’s Hope in a dark time: WATCH
Selections for Volume Four (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. We Shall Not Be Moved (Opera Philadelphia): In May 1985, the Philadelphia police bombed a rowhouse that had been home to MOVE, a group of radical Black separatists; the resulting fire killed eleven people, including five children. Not a single member of the police was ever criminally prosecuted, for a crime that a 1986 commission found “unconscionable.” It’s a crime that haunts Philadelphia and this country to this day – a phenomenon John Edgar Wideman, in his novel Philadelphia Fire, describes as a “conflagration blooming, expanding outward, like ripples from a stone to the corners of the universe.”
Cue the music for We Shall Not Be Moved, a genre-stretching opera by Haitian Americans Daniel Bernard Roumain (music) and Marc Bamuth Joseph (libretto); it was one of New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s picks for year’s best in 2017. We Shall Not Be Moved brings those young people back, twice: as ghosts of that 1985 bombing, and as five homeless teens. Living in the shell of MOVE’s onetime home, they (re)live their own version of the MOVE tragedy.
Themselves on the run and shadowed by those ghosts – with whom they dance in the dark, enacting director and choreographer Bill T. Jones’ gorgeously fluid fusion of R&B and hip-hop – the teens unwittingly make clear how little has changed.
There are many things to like about this moving piece: Roumain’s eclectic score, which pays homage to the funky Philly Sound; Joseph’s lyrical choreopoem and how Jones’ cast embody it; the creators’ extraordinary compassion, which encompasses not only the five teens but a Latinx police officer; and the creators’ equally expansive scope, which puts American history on trial in the city where the Founding Fathers undermined their clarion call to freedom by simultaneously upholding the nightmare of slavery.
You can watch a September 2017 performance of We Shall Not Be Moved, which is streaming for free (although donations are encouraged) at the Opera Philadelphia website through August 31.
2. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (PBS Great Performances): In her introduction to Twilight, her play about race relations in Los Angeles at the time of the infamous police beating of Rodney King and ensuing jury acquittal of the perpetrators, Anna Deavere Smith notes that “few people speak a language about race that is not their own. If more of us could actually speak from another point of view, like speaking another language, we could accelerate the flow of ideas.” “After all,” Smith says later, “identity is in some ways a process toward character. It is not character itself. It is not fixed. Our race dialogue desperately needs this more complex language.”
Twilight – which I once described in a review as “one of the best conversations on race that I’ve ever heard” – gives us that language. Smith channels the voices of forty among the hundreds of people she interviewed: white and Black, Korean and Latinx, men and women, cops and activists, store owners and looters. Playing them all, Smith physically embodies the truth that each of us contains multitudes.
Little wonder that PBS has just announced a change in its summer programming, allowing it to immediately bring back its 2001 Great Performances production of Twilight, in which director Marc Levin blends Smith’s stage performance with news footage and interviews to capture a community’s rage and loss, but also its grit and hope and love. This encore streaming opportunity will run from June 8 through August 7.
3. Black Like Me: Behind the Stratford Festival Curtain (Stratford Festival): Canada’s Stratford Festival has long done more than most majority white theater companies to further equity, diversity, and inclusion. It nevertheless came out with one of the strongest and most forthright admissions of complicity in ongoing institutional racism, when it issued one of the scores of statements offered by theater companies this past week in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Stratford has now gone still further. Having already postponed the week’s scheduled free streaming (and related live stream events) involving yet another excellent production (its outstanding 2015 Hamlet), Stratford offered Black company members, staff and crew free rein on its weekly YouTube broadcast. This past Saturday, this live broadcast – ordinarily reserved for a discussion among theater artists involved in that week’s newly streaming play – was instead entitled Black Like Me: Behind the Stratford Festival Curtain.
The resulting two-hour discussion among ten Black theater artists covers the waterfront, including play selection, tokenism, colorism, casting, Board composition, audience outreach, emotional trauma involving racism, what constitutes true allyship, and suggestions as to how Stratford and theater in general might move toward a more equitable future. There are parts of it that are painful to watch. But there are also numerous moments that challenge and inspire, in offering a vision of how much better things might be, if we would only do the hard work necessary to collaborate in making them so.
Under the “Connect” tab on the The Stratford@Home section of the Stratford Festival website (itself a goldmine), one will also find additional YouTube materials exploring how we might move beyond the Western canon. And in two weeks – on Saturday, June 21 – indigenous theater artists associated with Stratford will be offered a similar opportunity to use Stratford’s YouTube channel, for a discussion informed by the unique experience of First Nation theater artists.
4. Notes from the Field (HBO): HBO is making available the free streaming of a second Anna Deavere Smith play starring the playwright – the 2018 film of her 2016 Notes From the Field – through July 3. Moving outward from the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Notes examines America’s school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes kids of color out of the classroom and into the prison system.
In making Notes, Smith interviewed close to 250 people in Maryland, South Carolina, California, and Pennsylvania. She examines the fallout of this country’s overuse of expulsions and suspensions to disproportionately discipline the poor – even as we pour money into law enforcement and our prison system, rather than investing more fully in mental health and education.
Smith tells this collective story by embodying the individual stories of close to 20 of the people she interviewed, from the minister who gave a stirring address at Gray’s funeral to a high school student, arrested for protesting the violent treatment of a classmate by a school police officer.
Along the way, Smith becomes James Baldwin, asking “what should we do about the children?,” and answering that “we are responsible, in so far as we’re responsible for anything at all . . . for the future of the world.” She ends by walking in the shoes of Congressman John Lewis – “because,” Smith tells us, “he personifies both a violent moment in American history” and “the promise of what American character is all about.”
Consistent with statements she’s made during interviews following George Floyd’s murder, Smith introduces the published edition of Notes by noting that “in some ways, the current political climate is discouraging,” but that “in other ways, I see room for hope,” starting with “a greater awareness now of these social injustices.” For decades, Smith has played an integral role in raising that awareness, true to her express belief that “art can inspire action.”
“This is a time for people to cease being spectators and to instead be moved to get out there and do something to effect change,” Smith writes in the Notes introduction. “It is time to ask ourselves, ‘Who are we? What to we believe in? What kind of country do we want to be?’”
5. August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand (PBS): In a landmark speech given 24 years ago this month, August Wilson celebrated the awesome potential of theater. It “can disseminate ideas,” Wilson said. “It can educate even the miseducated, because it is art – and all art reaches across that divide that makes order out of chaos, and embraces the truth that overwhelms with its presence, and connects [us] to something larger” than ourselves and our imagination.
I close this week’s picks by paying homage to Wilson, a man who had plenty of reason to hate and despair but who nevertheless adhered to the principle of hope that is a thread running through this week’s picks. Wilson’s belief in that principle is on full display in an excellent 2015 documentary chronicling his life and plays: The Ground on Which I Stand. It’s among the best of the many fine biographies in PBS’ American Masters Series.
Ground is stuffed with dramatic readings, archival footage, and archival stills as well as interviews involving legendary theater artists including Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks, Phylicia Rashad, and Lloyd Richards. “As an American playwright,” Parks says in an interview for Ground, “August Wilson helps us remember who we are. All of us. All American people.” Wilson never shirked from all that’s ugly about who we are. But in dazzling poetic language, he also insisted to the end that we might be and do more, summoning the better angels of our nature and ensuring that someday, we shall overcome.
References (in order of mention):
* Lin-Manuel Miranda (inspired by Langston Hughes and Bob Marley): America the Beautiful
* NaTasha Yvette Williams sings Jason Robert Brown’s Hope:
* John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire (Henry Holt, 1990)
* Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuth Joseph, We Shall Not Be Moved: https://www.operaphila.org/whats-on/digital-festival/we-shall-not-be-moved/
* Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (PBS Great Performances trailer):
* Stratford Statement, Black Lives Matter:
* Stratford Festival: Black Like Me: Behind the Curtain:
* Anna Deavere Smith, Notes From the Field (trailer):
* Anna Deavere Smith, Notes From the Field (HBO):
* Anna Deavere Smith, Notes From the Field (published text; Anchor Books, 2018)
* August Wilson (speech), The Ground on Which I Stand:
* August Wilson (documentary), The Ground on Which I Stand: