Friday, January 19, 2007

Yeah, But Is It Art?

The following is a long and rambling post, with a few tangential off-shoots...Here's hoping it's not totally incoherent.

So, 2007 is starting out somewhat promisingly (if slightly daunting; and mood-altering lingering sickness notwithstanding). This last Monday, I dove head-first into directing a new play: Katrina: I Too Am Worthy.

This would be the second show in a row, since my hiatus, that a) is a new, untested work, b) written by a Seattle/NW black playwright, and c) deals specifically with the black experience.

These three identifying markers really shouldn't be that big a deal, and the fact that it is such a beast should tell us all we need to know about the nature of race relations, not only in the Pacific NW, but in Arts and Academia in general.

Let's think about this: Since the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, it could be argued that African Americans have not had a major impact on the Arts world, with a few exceptions. Music is probably where it's been felt the most, followed by Literature, and the Visual Arts.

If you bend the rules to include Film and TV, the picture becomes even more depressing...Blaxploitation aside, it is only in the last 20 years that folks like Spike Lee, the Hugh Bros. and John Singleton have come to the forefront, while others meddle in mediocrity (Vondie Curtis, Ernest Dickerson), and others struggle in obscurity (Carl Franklin, Charles Burnett). It's telling that the success of low-middlebrow fare like Diary of a Mad Black Woman is seen as a breakthrough to reaching a new untapped audience.

The rest could be summed up in two words: Wayans Bros. White Chicks, anyone? How about Little Big Man?

This same malaise could be applied to TV, where, for every Roc, there's a Homeboys in Outer Space, Martin, or Bitch Be Crazy in the offing.

But nowhere is this deficiency more prevalent than in the world of Theater, specifically in the playwrighting realm. Could you name a contemporary to August Wilson? Or anyone who has that promise, or even as critically lauded as him? (If you have answers, please oh please share!)

Now, considering how little is known of this sub-genre of the arts, one would think that an attempt to understand what's happening within any given story would be necessary. How does the piece communicate to its intended audience?

Alternately, does everything have to be universal? And if not, could it still be called Art?

I suppose this could all be very academic; and I'm not suggesting that we turn off all critical demands upon a work. But, must everything be held up to the same scrutiny one would give Mr. Wilson? As usual, I'm open to debate.

I'll tell you what's driving this entry: I fear we're losing the ability to tell, and listen to, a good story. That, in demanding these higher expectations on a work, we lose sight of the story that's being told. We seem to have forgotten that even Shakespeare has written more than his fair share of pulp during the course of his career. What's wrong with pulp?

Take, for example, the reaction to Book of Nathan, by Joseph Mitchell. This is the piece I acted in at Theater Schmeater this last fall.

The reaction, by and large, was pretty positive, with the exception of some niggles and one largely negative review by an older member of the press. The nature of the niggles varied, from disliking the structure of the show (one half focused on a caustic father-son reunion, in which the characters re-lived their violent past, with the influence of racism not that far off; the other half was more of a modern day Greek chorus in which the numerous racial and class-based inequities of the world were openly discussed) to finding the religious talk of the former half a bit trite and biased.

I'm not about to discount the validity of these niggles, but feel compelled to point out that in a community where most discussions of religion end with an "Amen," the fact that there was any religious discourse is a promising sight. The same applies to the structure, where the majority of what's seen from this corner of the world rarely deviates from an "A leads to B leads to C" approach.

That aside, the story being told in the father-son half of the show, specifically that of the father, who was coerced by an Intelligence Operation to snitch and turn on his own people, is one that does not see the light of day often, if at all. Rarer still, the results of such activity on a man and his family. Yet, this aspect seemed to be waved away with a "well, of course that happened" kind of comment. I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Passe', but this isn't exactly common knowledge.

Do I need to stress the novelty of seeing such a thing on stage more than I have done so? The reaction of black audiences to the show was a palpable thirst and undeniable joy at seeing it take place.

At this point, which is more important?

Yes, ideally, any such work would be able to transcend any barrier. All I am saying is that in the still-somewhat-barren world of Black Theater, there needs to be room for growth and improvement.

"I did not write [Book of Nathan] for the [elder members of the press] of the world," is what Mr. Mitchell said upon reading that review, and I admire that stance.

Which leads me to Katrina.

Written by raw newcomer Donte Felder, Katrina falls prey to many of the pitfalls that befall any young new writer: Repetitive, on the nose dialogue; a reliance on coincidence; the insistence on a wrapped-up-in-a-nice-bow resolution.

There are a number of things the script has going for it, however: Regardless of the on-the-nose quality, the dialogue between characters is very natural and free-flowing; it doesn't belabor the obvious points; and, frankly, it contains a story that has to be shared.

A fraction of the show takes place in Seattle, but the bulk of it takes place on a roof in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina-related levee breakage. Felder's characters and situations are a composite of events that did take place in that place and at that time (Felder has family in NOLA, and talked to them extensively in the weeks and months afterward).

A sort of Lifeboat in New Orleans, except it really happened. Yes, Bush is mentioned. Yes, helicopters fly by and don't offer aid. Yes, people die, and sacrifices are made, and noble efforts ensue. But, for a short while, you are there, experiencing what these people are experiencing...In other words, it's a good story.

Sensationalistic manipulation, or a story that must be heard?

And really, what's wrong with a little sensationalism?

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At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Katrina: A Whole Lotta Water
New York Writer/Producer Brings His Hip-Hop Katrina Musical to Baltimore

Katrina: A Whole Lotta Water
8 p.m. Jan. 19, 1 and 8 p.m. Jan. 20, and a special youth show at 1 p.m. Jan. 21, at the Rognel Heights Cultural Center, 1200 Wicklow Road
Tickets or (917) 716-6635 By Bret McCabe

Last year a disabled New York cop-turned-actor/producer and a disabled actress/dancer and Katrina survivor teamed up for a musical response to the 2005 hurricane. And following two short off-Broadway runs last November and December, producer/writer Emmitt Thrower and Tiara Mone't King bring Katrina: A Whole Lotta Water to Charm City for a weekend run.

"We worked together to stage this thing that we thought was so important," Thrower says during a stop in Baltimore a week before the play opens. The 50-year-old New Yorker produces the play under his own Wabi Sabi company. "It's a very hopeful production, and everything is based on true stories. The only things changed is the people who deliver the stories."

The hip-hop musical--which includes dancers and multimedia--was inspired by New York rap activist Shakka, who wrote the song "So Much Water" that played over New York radio and at benefits. Shakka brought the idea to Thrower after working with him on a previous Wabi Sabi production, Ghetto Chronicles. "After Ghetto Chronicles he came to me and said, `Why don't you write a Katrina play?' And then came to me and said, `I know: "Katrina: The Musical."' And I looked at him and said, `No, I don't think so. You ain't getting me killed.' 'Cause it's a still a touchy subject."

The idea stayed with him, though, and he started gathering stories and threading together some ideas. What really made Thrower want to mount the production, though, was Katrina's first anniversary and the misleading stories that came out of it. "Once the anniversary came around and you read about everything being fine, `New Orleans is back,' and `all those people are OK,' that was it--because that's just not the case," he says. "It appeared to me that there wasn't enough focus of the emotional and psychological impact of it, so I thought to do something more like a tribute and re-energize people to realize there's still people suffering and people from New Orleans are still scattered all over the country. I wanted to do something hopeful that also raises consciousness and awareness."

Shakka wrote the musical score, Thrower adapted real story lines into staged pieces and dances, and the production co-stars King, 27, a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate and Katrina survivor who was paralyzed from the waist down following a 2004 domestic-violence shooting. Sitawi Jahi of local arts organization Movements Unlimited is co-producing the Baltimore shows.

Katrina debuted at the Producers Club on Nov. 9 with a show for Katrina survivors and their families, and then ran for five performances at the Times Square Arts Center in December. And the response has been strong enough to try to take it on the road, with Baltimore the first stab at that experiment.

"Whatever we did, I feel like we did what we set out to do," Thrower laughs. "We wanted people to experience something and then be moved to do something. So even if it's just a few people, that's a start."

At 5:03 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Rambling, yes, but not nonsensical, so a marked improvement over your usual drivel.

I kid, I kid. You know I eat this kind of shit up with a spoon.

Some random thoughts that should coalesce as we go…

Film/TV – For certain, the least progress has been made by African Americans in these media, and that seems logical. It is the economic disenfranchisement of many African Americans through our nation’s history coupled with the power money exerts most specifically in those industries.

…considering how little is known of this sub-genre of the arts… Only because you are slicing it so thin, making it explicitly specific. But, what you are really talking about is protest theater (in a way – don’t balk yet). All art is political, but some more overtly so than the rest. We can look at all such art together through a lens of post-colonialism, of Theater of the Oppressed.

(I know I’m gonna get slammed by a theater major for incorrect application of Boal, but I’m taking my shot.)

…does everything have to be universal? No, not in the sense that it is fun for the whole fami8ly. But, I would argue that the best work makes some kind of connection between the specific and the universal, some resonance in the work that can potentially be understood or felt by anyone.

But, must everything be held up to the same scrutiny one would give Mr. Wilson? Yeah, dude, it must, and of course that is unfair, but there it is.

As for losing the ability to tell and listen to a good story, I’d agree. Politics can do that, overshadow the narrative until the latter is sacrificed for the former. The balance requires a deft touch. That potential connection to the universal helps, as it bridges the artist-audience gap, prevents the characters from being seen as merely other and their experiences therefore marginalized by the audience.

See, I think this is the deal – politically relevant art is really fucking hard because of all of the problems you allude to. Making it both historical/political and narrative is difficult and incredibly rewarding when it pays off (as the best of August Wilson always does). As an artist, if you want to tackle the more overtly political, you can’t allow yourself to fall back on “well, they just don’t get it, aren’t trying, etc” because that is artistic death.

Here’s where I start psychoanalyzing you a little, so feel free to tell me to fuck right off.

You’ve really been staking out the moral high ground in some of your arguments lately, and I think you are doing that a little here. Frustration with the desire for “should” lingers like unclaimed flatulence.

Engaging political art, understanding and defining your audience is important, and doing so well involves some opportunity cost, which is what you seem to be chafing against here. You are being forced to make some choices about what you want and what you will attempt and how you will judge your own success. That is the demand of work like this. And it is a noble calling. But if you want to have your cake and eat it too, then too fucking bad.

But it is good angst to have.

And, I’ll admit, partly I recognize the angst because I have seen it from you before, just the way you write when feeling the angst, and it usually leads you to the overbroad and the the creeping in of grudges. Like in a community where most discussions of religion end with an "Amen,". I’m unclear of which community you speak, dude. Certainly not the academic community I half-inhabit. Certainly not the theatre community we run in. Certainly not the frustrated intellectuals we know.

“No, man, it’s society, man. Our society is all Amen and …” No, dude, just no. Why muddy an already difficult subject with this? It is the kind of wild abstraction I’d make my students excise.

I love this topic, man. Now I want to have drinks and talk some art and politics. Maybe bottles of wine and a handful of stout hearted intellectuals soon?

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Frank said...

Drinks: art and politics? I'm down for that shite.

If you have answers, please oh please share!
Suzan Lori-Parks? I don't know if she's as lauded as Wilson yet, but she's still bad-ass.

The best political art never lets the politics get in the way of the story. Speaking of which, what about The Wire? I know it's written by a bunch of white guys, but I don't think any other show on TV gets closer to the heart of the inner-city black experience.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

I was going to mention Suzan Lori-Parks, too. She may never quite reach August's stature, but I agree, she's a little badass.

Maybe I have to take back something I said, or at least clarify. While it is merely the fact that politically-relevant theater about the black American experience will be compared to August Wilson, it isn't necessary to measure entirely up to be successful. He was so fucking good at making the story come first without hiding away the underlying politics... I think the politics can be more explicit and the story more subordinate than AW's plays and still work.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

Normally, I'd delete that spam, but, as it kinda deals with the subject matter in its own way, I'll let it stand.

Frank, the kids and I need to be better at announcing our "evenings for pontification," as they tend to happen rather extemporaniously at the dive of convenience...Next one to transpire, I'll make more of a formal announcement.

Suzan she the Pretty Fires lady? And it is my great shame to say that I haven't seen Wired, but truly admired the creator's work on Homicide: Life on the Streets when that ran., does it have to be "staking out a moral high ground?" I truly believe that I am just voicing the various contradictions in my head. If deciding to take the side of "letting things grow" equates to staking out the moral high ground, then so be it, though I don't think I'm truly damning anybody.

The community I'm talking about is primarily the black community, and in this I knowingly make a blanket statement, as there are many fractions there as anywhere else. Hard to deny, however, that the majority of the community belong to an Afro-Christian mindset that is pretty well entrenched.

And I suppose that comparisons to AW are inevitable (and appreciate your clarification on politics and story), but I'd want to stress the importance of letting something live and breathe before making any grand pronouncements over its worth.

If Titus Andronicus* can be turned from a purely pulpy exercise into a study of how violence begets violence...well, we've discussed the malleability of cultural readings in the past.

*The current production of which, taking place at the CHAC, you all must go see.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

The community I'm talking about is primarily the black community

In that context, your comment totally makes sense. The AA political community has yet to make piece with the fact that they gel so closely with social conservatives on a host of issues. I retract any objection and resultant psychoanalyzing.

But damn if that isn't something to figure out. Fucking Republicans already stole labor. How much longer until, in absence of something else, the draw the black vote into their web of social conservatism selling big business and war interests?

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Frank said...

How much longer until, in absence of something else, the draw the black vote into their web of social conservatism selling big business and war interests?

They keep trying, but to no avail. Bush actuallly did worse among blacks in 04 than he did in 00. He went from 8% to 6%. But they are relentless about it, that's for sure.

And SLP will probably never get to the level of AW only because theater is more bif

Anyway, maybe it's the fact that I'm half-drunk right now, but this whole thread is making a lot more sense to me. So some more thoughts on the topic at hand...

I think there's something to Jose's original point: you can certainly gather a group of people together and tell them a story in a room. And that doesn't have to be art, and it doesn't have to live up to August Wilson. You can even turn off the lights. That's cool with me.

But as soon as you start to embrace the trappings of theater, it becomes theater. if you start sending out press releases and charging admission... it's theater, and it will and should get judged against all that's come before it.

In that sense, the Shakespeare analogy is flawed,I think, because the difference between theater and storytelling was less than it is now, because media in general is more sophisticated. Our storytelling modes have multiplied, and so we need to know what we're consuming and the rules of consumption so that we may fully embrace it.

Shakespeare and his ilk got away with b-rate pulp because the only other entertainment option was Bear-baiting. :)

Now, all that said, you still have to know your audience, know your community. What's fascinating to one audience is flat-out boring to another. Different strokes for different folks, to use an all-too-convenient reference. That's the genius of the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity -- it depends on the accepted standards of the community.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

maybe it's the fact that I'm half-drunk right now, but this whole thread is making a lot more sense to me.

Yeah, this blog has that effect on people.

Shakespeare and his ilk got away with b-rate pulp because the only other entertainment option was Bear-baiting.

Sure, but the reason I mention Billy Shakes (and Titus in particular) is to stress the importance of entertainments, and that sometimes, you need to meet such items on their own merits.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Josephmitchell said...

Thank you for the support, Jose. I'd like to share a passage from "The Norton Anthology" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay with you and your fellow bloggers. It may help put your musings about the dearth of contemporary Black American playwrights into an historical perspective that may provide some causal insights.

"The resistance to the merits of black literature...has its origins in the Enlightenment and in the peculiar institution of slavery. The social and political uses to which this literature has been put have placed a tremendous burden on these writers, casting an author and her or his work in the role of synecdoche, a part standing for the ethnic whole, signifying who 'the Negro' was, what his or her 'inherent' intellectual potential might be, and whether or not the larger group was entitled to the full range of rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. Because of the perilous stature of African Americans in American society, their literature has suffered under tremendous extra literary burdens."

In 1773, Phyllis Wheatley had to endure a public inquisition convened by 10 of the most pre-eminent white men in Boston, who cross examined her to determine if she had the intellectual capacity to actually write a book of poetry. Upon the acquittal of her humanity before this august group, the 10 publicly pronounced that Ms. Wheatley did indeed possess the requisite intellect and skill to produce her “work of art.” Only then was her work published. Not in Boston, but in London. And so it goes.


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