I haven’t paid attention to football since 1986 when the Bears won the Super Bowl. Best team, best Super Bowl ever! I like basketball, baseball and sometimes hockey, but football is a snore. But I do watch the Super Bowl or at least part of it. I might tune in to watch the commercial breaks but my favorite part is halftime.
Because the Super Bowl halftime show is all that counts. It’s amazing how much can be packed into 12 minutes of prime time. Most musicians play a set of their greatest hits (yes, you, Mr Springsteen, in 2009). The Stones in 2006 were memorable and so were the Who in 2010. The Black-Eyed Peas and Usher in 2011 put on a visually stunning show. But the 2016 halftime show was 12 minutes of satisfying drama. Chris Martin started with the 2008 Coldplay hit, “Viva La Vida,” and then segued into “Paradise” and “Adventure of a Lifetime.” The visual effects and background performers were colorful and hundreds of fans in black were packed into the sections around the stage as if they were in the pit at a rock concert. Bruno Mars did a snappy version of “Uptown Funk,” choreographed with his slick and fancy footwork.
And then Beyoncé arrived to steal the show. In black leather, surrounded by her troupe of beautiful African-American dancers. They put on a superb and powerful performance, dressed in black leather shorts and jackets. boots and black berets, paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers, to Black Lives Matter and to black womanhood. Their dance routine at one point formed an X in honor of Malcolm X. It was a highly charged political and sexual performance of Beyoncé’s new song, “Formation.” And it’s probably a good thing that most of the audience couldn’t understand all the lyrics.
The music video of the song was released Saturday and adds even more political context with images of the Katrina flood that drowned New Orleans, Mardi Gras scenes and celebrations of hot sauce, entrepreneurship (“I just might be a Bill Gates in the making”), black beauty and black womanhood.
I’m not going to pretend that I can appreciate all the lyrics and messages because I’m a white female, privileged at that. But I cheer for Beyoncé’s action in putting her fame, power, wealth and glamour behind these messages. She could just sit back and increase her wealth with music and concert revenue, but she puts her image and reputation on the line.
Her video of “Formation” comes in two versions: “Dirty” and “Clean.” I’ll leave you with the best one.
Our new website, thirdcoastreview.com, has been launched by a bunch of refugees from Gapers Block, our dear, archived Chicago website. I wrote about that here a few weeks ago, but we weren’t quite ready for prime time until January 8, our official launch date. I’m editor and publisher of Third Coast Review and lead theater critic. I’m also serving as editor of the Screens page until I find someone else to take that over. We have a cadre of almost 30 writers and editors and I think we’re off to a great start. (Our logo was designed by my friend and former colleague, Linda Pompeii.)
I’ve reviewed four plays in the last week and most of them are recommended, if not must-sees. Here are the mini-reviews with links to the full reviews on 3CR.
The Mutilated at A Red Orchid Theatre
You’ve probably never heard of this Tennessee Williams play, but it’s a bizarre delight and I highly recommend it. My review says it’s a “joyous goofy Christmas” and it is, complete with bleak holiday songs written by the playwright. The acting, directing, design and sound elements are all terrific. This is an excerpt from the song that opens the play, performed by a dozen motley carolers.
I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, a little while,
There will be pity for the wild
A miracle, a miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.
The Mutilated runs through February 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells.
London Wall by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre
John Van Druten’s London Wall is another rarely performed play that warrants more affection. It’s the story of the steno-typists at a London law firm in the 1930s, the era when marriage was the only escape for a working girl in a low-wage job. Robin Witt’s direction and a fine cast result in excellent performances; the script is witty and the set a beautifully done office setting. My review notes that London Wall creates “a perfect microcosm of the pre-feminist age” and has some messages for the present as well. The Griffin Theatre production continues thru Feb. 14 at the Den Theatre, upstairs at 1333 N. Milwaukee. (And yes, an elevator is in their renovation plans for 2017, as well as a sprinkler system and a new marquee, according to owner Ryan Martin.)
Sunset Baby at Timeline Theatre
Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau is a family story, but a tough one, about a young woman (AnJi White as Nina) who doesn’t want to make peace with her father’s Black revolutionary past and its impact on her mother and her own childhood. She and her boyfriend are trying to save money for a new life by dealing drugs and sex. The 110-minute play (no intermission) is infused with music by Nina Simone throughout. The three-member cast is strong with a soulful performance by Edward Van Lear as Kenyatta, the father. My review. Sunset Baby runs thru April 10 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington.
Bruise Easy at American Theater Company
This is a play with interesting ingredients, including two reunited siblings and a Greek chorus of neighborhood kids. Somehow all the pieces don’t come together in this script by Dan LeFranc. Joanie Schultz’ usually sure direction doesn’t save it, although the play has interesting moments and it’s short–about 80 minutes. Bruise Easy continues thru Feb. 14 at ATC, 1909 W. Byron. Check out my review.
Today is a sad day. On Friday I listened most of the day to WXRT playing David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday. Today I was thinking about getting up when the radio went on with the news that the Thin White Duke died last night. I was stunned.
I put on my Aladdin Sane earrings and got out my David Bowie albums. And I remembered the fabulous exhibit of Bowie’s life and work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2014. The title was “David Bowie Is.”
I wrote about how Bowie was a master of design and identity and controlled every aspect of his preparation and performance. And I noted that “David Bowie Is is not just an exhibit for fans of his music or for fans of rock and roll. It’s an exploration of history and popular culture transmuted through the vision of one artist, who probably deserves to be called a genius.”
What I didn’t mention is a key point about Bowie’s persona that is getting a lot of attention today (at least among those I hang around with on social media). He was a man of shifting identities and personas who made it possible for young people to recognize and come to terms with their roles as outsiders, others, maybe even freaks.
Ann Powers of NPR Music wrote this in her appreciation of her pop hero: “His fans were the strange, and Bowie had finally given them a way to show it. The press called them Bowie boys and Bowie girls because there was no other name for them yet: no pansexual, no bi-curious; yes freak, but that felt like a hippie term and this wasn’t a hippie thing.”
My friend June Skinner Sawyers wrote a lovely poem this morning and we’ve posted it on Third Coast Review, the new Chicago arts and culture website, as our homage to Bowie. You can read it here.
The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.
Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)
GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.
What else was new and important in 2015?
On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.
In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.
The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf & Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).
Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.
Getting ready for Springsteen
Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.
The year in review? Not yet.
I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.
December is always a busy month but this one is busier than usual for me because I’m working on an exciting new venture. I’ll tell you about it in a few weeks. For now, I want to give you my theater and movie favorites for the month.
Fallen Angels at Remy Bumppo Theatre
This 1923 Noel Coward play is smart and funny, very funny, and slickly staged on Remy Bumppo’s space on the second floor at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The play and performance are delightful, partly because Coward does an interesting gender switch, unusual for the 1920s, with three outstanding female roles. My Gapers Block review tells all about it. Angels runs until January 10.
Ibsen’s Ghosts at Mary Arrchie Theatre
This very fine staging of the Ibsen play is a bit meta-theatrical and regularly breaks that famous fourth wall to interact with the audience. It’s hard for the audience not to feel that they’re interacting with the performers in this tiny space on second floor at Angel Island. (This is Mary Arrchie’s final season so do try to see one of their shows this year.) Ibsen’s Ghosts runs through December 20. My review begins this way:
“Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts takes the great Norwegian playwright’s scandalous 1881 play, shakes it up and spits it out in a witty contemporary form. And then punches you in the gut with its ending.”
Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph
Every Chicagoan knows the story of the thrill murder of young Bobby Franks by two University of Chicago students, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb. Victory Gardens retells the crime, its aftermath and the Leopold-Loeb trial in John Logan’s 1986 script, written while he was a Northwestern University student. (Logan is known for his scripts for Hauptmann and Red, but has since become more famous as a screenwriter.) The two actors who play the criminals give excellent performances and veteran Chicago actor Keith Kupferer plays their attorney, Clarence Darrow, who saved them from execution. Never the Sinner closed this week. Here’s my review.
Agamemnon at Court Theatre
I liked last year’s Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre, but this year’s segment in the trilogy is a little flat and disappointing. The rhythm and performances in general are not as riveting. The actors performing as the chorus, however, are excellent, but they take up too much stage time and detract from the central plot. Agamemnon has now closed.
Some quick movie reviews
Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s Greek satire (his adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata) designed to send a strong message about Chicago’s gun culture and gang warfare. It succeeds in dramatizing the Chicago murder crisis — more dead bodies than the deaths of special forces in Iraq. I found the two-hour film hugely entertaining, funny and wise — but messy and incoherent. It’s wildly uneven. I loved the Greek references and the dialogue in rhyming couplets. Although I liked it and will see it again, I could only gave it three stars out of five on my Letterboxd review. Chi-Raq has received some good and bad reviews, but see if for yourself. Unless you can’t handle vulgarity. Here’s the famous trailer.
Phoenix is a 98-minute film released in 2014 by German director Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss (the same pair responsible for the outstanding film Barbara). In Phoenix, Hoss stars as a woman disfigured in a Nazi concentration camp; she undergoes plastic surgery but looks quite different than her original self. When she finds her husband, he doesn’t recognize her but decides she looks enough like his dead wife that she can help him carry out a fraud scheme. The Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” is used hauntingly throughout the film and provides a stunningly perfect surprise ending. Phoenix is streaming on many services.
Inside Out, a Pixar film, is said to be suitable for children and it’s certainly not unsuitable, but it is very much a nuanced film that adults will like too. The story, briefly, is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s head and heart suffer from all the pangs and pains you can think of, missing her friends, her old house and her hockey team. The emotions that fight it out are embodied as Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust and are voiced by a fine set of actors.
My little grandsons were mesmerized by this 100-minute film (of course, they will watch anything on a screen, as their mother says) but my son and I thought everything but the basic story probably slipped by them. Still, it’s a good family film with beautiful animation.
Suffragette, a film about the fight for women’s voting rights in early 20th century England, was rather a disappointment. Too much attention paid to the individual angst suffered by the Carrie Mulligan character and others; not enough devoted to the suffrage question. (Or maybe I wanted to see a documentary.) Mulligan’s performance is good and Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as the chemist-activist. Meryl Streep does a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, overshadowed by her huge hat.
Songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City on November 19, 1915, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Because he didn’t “want to be found dead in Utah,” his body was transported to Chicago by the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies). His last will included the famous entreaty, “Don’t Mourn But Organize.”
Some 30,000 people viewed the funeral procession and attended the lively funeral service at the West Side auditorium (Racine and Harrison) on that November 25 (Thanksgiving Day) and his body was cremated at Graceland Cemetery. What happened to his ashes? That’s another whole story.
Chicago fans of Joe Hill, a Swedish-born itinerant laborer, celebrated the anniversary of his life and music on several occasions in November. I attended two excellent events, highlighted by great performances of Joe’s music. He wrote dozens of songs that lambasted capitalism and bosses, but his most famous lyric was “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
The Hideout, a 19th century working men’s saloon on Wabansia, was standing room only the night of the main Joe Hill celebration. My Gapers Block story describes the agenda and list of speakers, which included a funeral oration by Larry Spivack of the Illinois Labor History Society and a rousing description of today’s IWW by Alison Olhava and Randall Jamrok. (The IWW is organizing successfully today, with branches at companies like Jimmy John’s, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. See their website for other industries and companies where the union is active.)
The evening started with a rousing set including “The Preacher and the Slave” by Bucky Halker and his amazing guitar, and closed with songs by a group including Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons and Martin Billheimer on accordion. Their closing number was “Workers of the World Awaken,” in which the crowd joined in. Psalm One and Fluffy performed a terrific hiphop version of Hill’s “Rebel Girl.”
A funeral march and procession closed the evening and Joe Hill’s coffin was carried outside by pallbearers and burned over a bonfire. The ashes were our burned notes describing why we believe Joe Hill lives today. Anyone who wanted to replicate the 1915 distribution of ashes had only to leave a self-addressed envelope. (In 1915, Joe’s ashes were divided up into a bunch of small envelopes with his picture on the front with the caption, “Murdered by the capitalist class.” The envelopes were given to IWW delegates and guests so Joe’s ashes could be scattered in every state except Utah and in other countries too.)
Bucky Halker, a singer-songwriter and PhD in labor history from the University of Minnesota, just released his new album, Anywhere But Utah: The Songs of Joe Hill, at an album release party at the Filament Theatre in the Six Corners neighborhood. Bucky played with the Big Shoulders Brass Band, featuring two saxophones, trumpet, tuba, trombone and drums. John Abbey sat in on upright bass on several numbers. Bucky and the band played two sets, including “Scissor Bill,” and concluded with a procession around the theater.
Here’s Bucky performing the Joe Hill song from the Little Red Song Book of IWW Songs.
Last week I wrote about my week in Cuba, with details on our itinerary, lodging, transportation and information briefings. If you missed My week in Cuba: Land of Hope and Dreams, you can catch it here. Cuba has a lively art and music scene although it’s not clear whether the artists and musicians can earn a living with their talents. (But then that’s a problem here too, isn’t it?)
We had a chance to visit artists’ studios, galleries, shops and street stalls to chat, view and shop for art and inexpensive artisan wares. We heard a lot of music, most of it played during our meals at paladars. Almost every paladar had a small group—trio or quartet—playing for diners. We enjoyed the music of a trio at lunch at Paladar Le Moneda Cubana in Old Havana one day and then found them playing for our breakfast the next morning at the hotel. Most of the music tends to be global pop, rather than the authentic Cuban music I would have liked to hear.
Raul Castro has loosened the restrictions on private enterprise to some extent. There are hundreds of paladars now and many private homes operating as bed and breakfasts. The main governmental control, according to locals, is inspection to be sure the full operation is being taxed. Artists are able to show and sell their work, but their income is heavily taxed, like other entrepreneurs. (In many of these places, we were not able to take photos.)
The art of Arian and Andrey
One evening a few of us visited two artists’ studios to meet the artists and see their work. Our guide was Jose Camilo Lopez, a cultural guide and friend of our tour manager. Along with his driver, Daniel, we zipped around Havana neighborhoods.
Irsula Studios is both gallery and workshop for artists. Arian Irsula, the owner, was able to use family money to lease and redo two floors of an old house. The space, still being renovated, features 15-foot ceilings and pillars with Corinthian capitals. It has now become a slick modern gallery and workspace. We saw collages and paintings by Arian and Andrey Quintana as well as other artists. An example from each of them is in the slide show. Arian has created some collages that I really liked. They’re black and white abstracts with bits of glass and mirror. I really would have loved to buy one (they were not cheap) but was unsure about (1) any bureaucratic restrictions about taking art out of Cuba, and (2) that the collage would be broken in travel. So I settled for buying a small print at a museum shop. (See below.)
We also visited the home, gallery and studio of Reynerio Tamayo, an established artist who works with cubarte.cult.cu, the government arts agency. His work makes use of many media and much of it is humorous or satirical or based on pop culture references. Reynerio is a delightful and charming guy and we spent quite a bit of time viewing his gallery of work and visiting with him and his family.
I should note that these artists usually don’t have websites; they may have Facebook pages, but they have very limited internet access. (See Cuba Part 1.) Typically, they’ll show you additional examples of their work on their smartphone galleries.
Dinner and a jazz concert
Later the same evening we went to the luxurious home of a Havana art dealer in the neighborhood called Nuevo Vedado. Odette Pandoja, a friend of the Smithsonian group, had invited us for dinner and a jazz concert. The home was large and beautiful, as I described in Cuba Part 1. I was particularly taken by a series of large black-and-white abstract photographs, which would be very happy in my apartment.
After dinner, a jazz trio made up of musicians on keyboards, percussion and clarinet played a fine concert for us. I bought the band’s CD/DVD combination as a gift for my musician son (after I play both of them myself, as he knows I will).
Art on the street and in museums
While we were in Cienfuegos, we had free time to walk around the square visiting artists’ studios and the street stalls where other artisans sold their work. I bought some bracelets and other jewelry, but my favorite find was these wooden cars (ostensibly for my grandsons) that look like the 1950s cars that are driven all over Havana. (I think I’m going to give them as gifts, but I’m growing fonder of them every day.) In Trinidad, a quartet of elders played in the park as we walked by on the cobblestone streets. We also visited an artist’s home and gallery there after a too-long and unmemorable lunch at Paladar El Dorado.
On our last morning before flying from Havana to Miami, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in old Havana, where we saw work organized by decade. There was not much inspiring work there and we saw much work from the 1960s and ‘70s that was derivative of modernists such as Warhol and Picasso. In fact, we saw a 1965 painting that was almost a replica of Picasso’s Guernica. Cuban artists of that period created a lot of political art and pop art multiples. At this museum, like most others, we toured with a docent whose Spanish was translated into English by our guide.
One other museum stop I should mention was in Miami, the day before our departure for Havana. My friend Christa and I made a quick trip to PAMM, the Perez Museum of Art Miami, where we saw two exhibits and shopped in the excellent museum store. The museum is new and modern but there was a lot of construction going on around it so I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the exterior.
The most interesting exhibit was Bloodlines by the Dominican artist Firelei Báez, who now lives in New York. Her paintings of African-American and Cuban women are rich in detail and color; they often depict hair designs, textiles and body ornaments.
Music and dance
While in Cienfuegos, we had some interesting musical entertainment. After walking around the square, we climbed several flights of stairs to hear a special concert by the Choir of Cienfuegos, a chorus of about 24 local men and women, who performed a concert of Cuban and international songs and show tunes. One of them, incongruously, was the American folk song, “Shenandoah.”
The day we were traveling from Cienfuegos back to Havana, we stopped at the Museum of Guanabacoa (in the colonial township of Guanabacoa) for a folkloric performance of music and dance by Grupo Olurún. This ended up with many of us joining in the dancing, but for some reason, there are no photos to record this.
More Cuban music
The music we probably think of as real Cuban music is that of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Havana members club that closed in the 1940s and was reconstituted in the 1990s by guitarist Ry Cooder and then filmed by director Wim Wenders. Here’s some footage from the Wenders 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.
Another song playing in my mind last week has a famous Havana reference. It’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by the late great rocker Warren Zevon. It’s from his 1979 album, Excitable Boy, which is better known for the title track and the iconic song Werewolves of London (one of the ringtones on my phone). Zevon sings:
I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this.