Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 7
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 7: JUNE 29, 2020 - INDEPENDENCE DAY
What sort of nation do we want to be? Who gets to participate in that debate and tell that story? In the wake of Juneteenth and just in time for July 4, each of this week’s selections – yes, even the one that channels 1930s pulps and comic books – is wrestling with these and related questions involving the burden of history; the meaning of revolution; and how we might actually learn to talk to each other, so that we can finally realize the long-deferred dream of a nation in which everyone fully enjoys their unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As these selections make clear, there’s nothing quite like theater for challenging us to think about such questions in new ways – declaring our independence from master narratives so that we can create better and more inclusive stories. “Now more than ever,” said Phillipa Soo (Eliza) in a recent interview, shows like Hamilton allow us “to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask who we are as a society, and who we want to be.”
As always, I’d love to hear from you regarding what theater experiences are challenging you to think and make the world anew. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me directly at email@example.com. Unlike “revolution,” both my last name and theater are spelled with an “er.”
Starting next week, I’ll be reaching you, with new picks, on Wednesdays rather than at the beginning of the week. Look for Volume 8 on July 8.
This week’s bonus selections honor the two epic productions that lead this week’s picks.
I’ll let Lin-Manuel Miranda himself introduce the first, while explaining why he agreed to move up the release date for Hamilton (more below). “I’m getting messages every day,” Miranda said in a New York Times interview, “from folks who had tickets to Hamilton and can’t go because of the pandemic, so moving up the release so everyone could experience it this summer felt like the right move.” Ditto Miranda’s similarly motivated decision this spring to pull together the original Broadway cast of Hamilton and sing the show’s signature opening number, to a nine-year-old girl who’d had tickets for one of those canceled performances: WATCH
Second, and related to the second pick this week, the great Nina Simone describes how her beloved friend Lorraine Hansberry inspired To Be Young, Gifted and Black, after which Simone gives an uplifting performance of this inspiring song in a concert filmed at Morehouse College in 1969: WATCH
Selections for Volume Seven (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Hamilton (Disney Plus) | Trailer: As I wrote in opening my 2016 review of the original Broadway production, “the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and sure to run on Broadway for years, really is all that.” But as I also said one paragraph later in the same review, “enough with the gushing; you can read plenty of that – all of it warranted – elsewhere.”
Let me focus instead on a few important details of the eagerly awaited drop of Hamilton on July 3 (2 a.m. CDT, if you’re keeping score), moved up from the original projected theater release of October 2021.
It’s not a movie (that will surely come, years from now), but a filming of the original Broadway cast (Miranda included) on stage in June 2016. Like that production, it runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. It’s only available from Disney Plus; while former free trials at Disney have ended, you can sign up for $6.99 per month and quit at any time. You’ll be able to watch (and pause) as many times as you’d like, for as long as you keep a subscription. It’s appropriate for kids; Miranda has muted and record-scratched, respectively, two of the show’s three F bombs to earn a PG-13 rating (as if any kid who loves theater hasn’t already heard the original soundtrack).
The only true obscenity, in this context, would be a failure to imagine that American history has always been as expansively multicultural as this landmark musical suggests. I can’t imagine a better way of celebrating July 4 than watching such a rousing reminder of all this country might yet be.
2. Les Blancs (National Theatre): In her recent book Looking for Lorraine, Imani Perry rightly notes that Lorraine Hansberry “has remained hidden in plain sight,” unseen as the political and aesthetic radical she was. She wasn’t a feel-good liberal, but a revolutionary socialist. Despite being married, she was gay. And her plays – emphatically including the ostensibly naturalistic Raisin in the Sun – are formally innovative as well as substantively radical inquiries tackling topics such as the limits of white liberalism and the viability of nonviolent change in a racist society.
Both issues are front and center in Hansberry’s Les Blancs – first seen five years after Hansberry’s premature 1965 death, in a production starring James Earl Jones. An epic play of ideas set in an unnamed African country on the cusp of independence, Les Blancs asks hard and oh-so-timely questions involving whether whites can ever truly overcome their privilege – and whether an oppressed Black population should or even can ever trust them as allies.
Convinced it could be her most important play, Hansberry worked on Les Blancs for five years; she was still revising it from her hospital bed in her final days. Her last journal entry urged Robert Nemiroff – her ex-husband, close friend, and literary executor – to assemble the various production drafts into a coherent whole. He did, making possible director Yaël Farber’s acclaimed 2016 National Theatre production, which will stream for free for one week, starting this Thursday, July 2.
You can warm up for Les Blancs by watching Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Tracy Strain’s excellent 2017 documentary on Hansberry. Part of the PBS American Masters series, it streams for free at PBS through Tuesday, June 30 in honor of Pride Month.
3. And So We Came Forth (Apple Family Plays): I opened my first edition of these picks (to which you can link above) by profiling the newest edition to Richard Nelson’s previous quartet of Apple Family plays: a made-for-Zoom, quarantine-era “reunion” of the same beloved five family members (and cast) through whom Nelson has been chronicling the fractured story of America for a decade. Entitled What Do We Need to Talk About: Conversations on Zoom, it’s drawn more than 70,000 viewers and is – hands down – the best new piece of work I’ve seen since the pandemic began.
I’m therefore thrilled to pass along the news that Nelson and his splendid cast are back with an encore Zoom play that will once again feature the lost art of actual conversation, in a country which increasingly seems incapable of having one on any topic that actually matters. Set in early July 2020 – amidst protests against racial injustice and the ongoing pandemic – And So We Came Forth: A Dinner on Zoom will debut at 6:30 CDT on July 1 and stream for free for eight weeks, although donations to The Actors Fund are encouraged. While knowledge of the prior Apple plays isn’t required, Nelson has provided a brief summary at the YouTube site where you’ll also find his new play.
4. Citizen: An American Lyric (Fountain Theatre): Poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine won a National Book Critics Circle award for Citizen, an unforgettable collection of essays, poems, and photographs. While riffing on Trayvon Martin, Serena Williams, and Hurricane Katrina, Rankine’s searingly honest and painful writing is best when capturing the daily microagressions endemic to “living while Black” in America.
The year after Citizen was published, Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles premiered a stage adaptation; following George Floyd’s murder, Fountain reassembled most of the original cast (and the original director, Shirley Jo Finney) for a virtual encore. It comes with technical snafus that afflict many “live” Zoom readings, but the payoff – hearing Rankine’s words, as channeled by the same actors who won rave reviews during the L.A. production – is more than worth it.
You can also watch a powerful (albeit abridged) reading from Citizen featuring Rankine herself at New York’s 92Y. I’m guessing either online performance will make you want to own Rankine’s book; it’s beautifully designed, in ways that compound how disturbing its subject matter is. The closest analogue that comes to mind is the recently republished Black Book, curated by Toni Morrison during her days as a Random House editor. Both books chronicle what Rankine refers to in Citizen as “this endless struggle to achieve, reveal, and confirm a human identity” which “contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.”
5. Doc Danger and the Danger Squad (Milwaukee Opera Theatre): How to combat the evil that results from a failure of imagination? Why, with an old-fashioned and endlessly imaginative radio play, of course. That’s what we’re currently getting, courtesy of Jill Anna Ponasik’s reliably inventive Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
Composer, lyricist, and book writer Jason Powell’s Doc Danger is a fun and loving send-up of 1930s pulp fiction and comics that simultaneously touches on contemporary evils like environmental devastation and tech-driven conformity. Presented in four weekly episodes, it is currently dropping every Thursday afternoon; earlier episodes will remain available at MOT’s website after they’re released.
In order to realize his diabolically deranged dreams of devilish domination, the dastardly Professor Z in Doc Danger must first duel and destroy a half-dozen death-defying demi-deities: dazzling women who can make superheroes like Superman seem downright silly, in stories and songs with far more (and far more clever) alliteration than I’m giving you now. (I’ve long liked Powell’s work, and he’s at the top of his game here).
I didn’t see the 2018 world premiere of Doc Danger, which had been scheduled for a live encore this season before the pandemic shut it down. I’ve never been less sorry to miss a show; doing so in 2018 required me in 2020 to conjure this team of avengers solely from what I heard when listening rather than also relying on memory of what I’d once seen. With hefty assists from foley artist Michael “Ding” Lorenz and sound designers Ric Probst and Adam Qutaishat, the topnotch cast – recording separately from the safety of their homes – became larger than life in mine as they were fleshed out by my imagination. Which is precisely the point, in a show continually driving home what theater repeatedly makes clear: we can take back the night if we’d but dare to dream a new day.
References (in order of mention):
Hamilton Cast Reunion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oilZ1hNZPRM&feature=youtu.be&t=507
Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine, To Be Young, Gifted and Black:
* Hamilton (registration at Disney Plus): https://www.disneyplus.com/
* Hamilton (official trailer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSCKfXpAGHc
* Imani Perry, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon, 2018)
* Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs (National Theatre trailer):
* Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (PBS Lorraine Hansberry documentary) (trailer):
* Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (PBS Lorraine Hansberry documentary) (full episode): https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/lorraine-hansberry-sighted-eyes...
* Richard Nelson, And So We Came Forth:
* Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014)
* Toni Morrison and Middleton A. Harris, The Black Book (Random House, 1974; reprinted 2019)
* Jason Powell, Doc Danger and the Danger Squad (link to episode one as well as production synopsis and program):