Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
A play by August Wilson
A Penumbra Theater Production
Tyrone Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
Photo: Tim Fuller
This gritty production of one of August Wilson's most successful plays fearlessly examines the meaning of race in the milieu of 1920's Jazz musicians. Set entirely in the environs of a recording studio, Wilson explores what it means to be black in America- through the conversation between the members of Ma Rainey's recording band.
Any play with music, especially one which is not a musical, usually runs into the problem of the music not being at the same level as the drama. It's understandable, great performances of music are usually at the very highest level of artistic achievement, to expect an actor to reach this height is unfair. In this play, thanks to the incendiary but all too-brief performances by Jevetta Steele as Ma Rainey, the music surpasses the drama.
This does not diminish the performances of a fine ensemble, led by James T. Alfred as the talented but troubled trumpeter Levee. Levee aspires to greatness, but is stifled by the traditional Ma Rainey, the unscrupulous white manager and record producer, but mostly by his own past, where violence is his weapon of first resort.
Music and drama overlap, they reinforce each other. Drama without music can be very austere, well used music can heighten emotional states, define the mood and advance the action. Music without drama can become insipid or listless. When they truly blend, as they do here, it brings the production to an emotional place either would be hard put to achieve on their own. Kudos to Sanford Moore, music director.
I was left musing on the meaning of race relations in my life. I grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood with some, but limited, interaction with people of color. There was racism, some of it virulent, but it was always there, and, as it was for Levee, it was a trap, a waste of time and a squandering of the human spirit for everyone.
One more time, with feeling.
Lyric by Henry Rollins
Sharon appears here every Friday, used by permission.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
I have a helluva lot of trouble just finding what I want to read, for God's sake, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I keep looking around the house, waiting for a good book to show up. Finally, on the piano bench, I see a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, written by some moron who used to try to give the time to Joyce Maynard. I started reading it, and I thought "This book stinks" and kept on. What a phoney. I had a couple of Scotch and sodas, and kept reading about this guy who was being kicked out of some terrible school. He would sweet talk the mothers of his classmates (how nauseating!) when he was taking the train to NYC, and and then went to some cheap hotels and dive bars and was trying to make time with some girls and failing. That killed me.
And then he goes home and talks to his 10 year old sister Old Phoebe about the teachers that would make him puke; that they were such phonies, thinking they were goddam princes or something. And then he started to cry, and went over to one of his old teachers place, and he was a flit and then he was downtown and it was almost Christmas and a million little kids were downtown with their mothers and he went to a movie, and it was so putrid he couldn't take his eyes off it. And every time he stepped off a goddam curb he started thinking about his dead brother, and he met up with Old Phoebe and she rode the carrousel and she looked so damn nice the way she kept going around and around in her blue coat and all.
And that's all I'm going to tell about. If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it.
Freedom of expression only goes so far. How far depends on your culture and, in the case of your yard or garden, your neighbors. One current trend in the U.S is the housing development with strict covenants on the appearance of your property. This means only "approved" colors on your siding and trim, fertilized, watered and short-mowed grass (native grasses need not apply.) And no art!
I'm not in that class (yet- but there are such developments within a mile of my house.) but who knows? There seems to be a trend to vinyl siding, a poor choice in this climate, but popular with developers. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some zealous inspector condemn my cedar shakes. They've lasted over 50 years now, most of the neighbors are on a second or third set of vinyl, steel or aluminum siding in the last 25 years. OK, I do have to paint every 7 years or so. I won't try any yard art such as the above, however- I'd be pushing my luck.
Listvinahus Ceramics Centre, Reykjavík, 2000
Vacation souvenirs often end up in a drawer, or simply discarded. Any thrift or antique store is full of them. But some transcend their initial function; the pieces I've brought home from this shop have managed to continue to grace my existence with their glassy presence. The shop is a friendly and low-key place, the potters work in the open, and don't mind if you linger. Their output ranges from kitschy Viking candle holders to fine-art vases and abstract works. This studio is a multi-generational affair, but is hardly tradition-bound.
On top of the world looking down on creation. Just looking.
Sharon Spotbottom appears by permission.
In the Midnight Hour
Adolescence is a time of discovery. One such discovery was that the day had twenty-four hours- it didn't end at 10:30 PM. There was another world which sprang into existence in the middle of the night. Everyone's parents worked in the morning, so if one was discreet one could leave the house at midnight, meet up with a friend or two, and prowl the streets, looking for adventure.
My childhood friend Kevin had a special knowledge of secret places. One of these places was the roof of Our Lady of Victory, the local catholic K-8 school. There was a certain section of the roof which overhung a railing next to the playground. There was only a 5 foot gap between the railing and the gutter, anyone who had the nerve (and could do a pull-up) could hoist themselves up. From there it was any easy job to attain the roof of the classroom building, a good forty feet above the ground.
We lived on the northern edge of North Minneapolis, a housing development on what only a generation prior had been a potato field. The land was table-flat, any elevation was an anomaly. When we stood on that roof, we could see for miles- taking in a vista of treetops, only broken by distant grain elevators. We could see the boundaries of our world: banal, small- a bedroom community with no attractions. There were no bars, no pubs- we lived in a "dry" ward. As we raced around on that roof-top, going from one side to the other, we felt excited by our double transgression- trespassing, and on the Church's property!
We managed to get down without killing ourselves, but there would be other midnight excursions, which gradually morphed into our late teen years, when booze, girls and other worldly temptations (in other parts of the city) replaced these childish games. We never found a bigger thrill, though.
Making the Best of a Hard Time
Taliesin (detail), Spring Green, Wisconsin
Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings Volume 4, 1939-1949, Edited by Brooks Pfeiffer, Rizzolini, New York, 1994
I've been working my way through my Christmas Mount TBR, this non-fiction book is by far more fantastic than any work of fiction I received.
Frank Lloyd Wright's works and influence are so monumental that even now, over fifty years after his death, there is almost an entire industry devoted to publishing works about every aspect of his life. This massive tome (one of a five volume set) is full of Wright's own writing about architecture, social planning, and an almost mystical view of the Art of Form and its organic relationship to the human spirit. One problem with any study of Wright is that he was always restless, changing and forward-looking: these books only look at the past.
The physical manifestation of these ideas was realized in the Taliesin Fellowship, Wright's attempt to create a new generation of designers who would learn by doing (and in the process bring in income and a source of labor for the endless process of maintaining Wright's estate and studio.) Many of Wright's essays in this book concern these individuals who worked with Wright in the depth of the depression. It was a fluid group, most members stayed for a year or less. Wright's account of this communal experiment in education remains a fascinating example of pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps. In our current climate of financial gloom, it is inspiring to see how much Wright accomplished with so little, even if he tended to lean heavily on his benefactors and exploit his students.
The book is also full of Wright's social criticism of government, capitalism, and small-minded "planners." The whole book plays like a fugue, with a recurring motif of a "New Reality", "Truth" and "Progress." One disadvantage of any collection of writing is that there is redundancy- the same ideas are presented again and again, each time intended for a different audience, Wright's polemics can become numbing at times. The book ends just as Wright was entering the last, most prolific phase of his career, and these writings can be seen as the blueprints for his legacy- love him or loathe him, his work abides and continues to inspire with its elegance, passion and beauty.
Illustration by Vsevolod Niculin, 1946
Valentines Day is for lovers.
Honoring it might be a bit cruel for singles,
but at least there is one day in the year where
happy couples may acknowledge their good fortune.
There exists a grand tradition of fairy folk sharing songs with musicians.
Sharon learned her tunes from a squid.
Sharon appears here by permission.
The Listening Room - Part 2
This "listening room" was the rehearsal space for the band The Explodo Boys.
We actually would diligently rehearse when we didn't have a gig. I would record the band and they would listen to the playback. Sometimes. The pictures didn't help. I wouldn't call it a "studio"; it was somewhat funky, especially in the summer when strange insects (a species of which I have never seen before or since) would appear and flit around, even being so bold as to land on the microphones while someone was singing. We called them "choochie bugs" for the lack of a better term, and there was even a song titled "Dance of the Choochies" which the band wrote in their honor.
The Listening Room
My basement contains a real throwback to my 1970's bachelor days. Those days when the music was all; no frills (read: no money.) Those hours were spent listening to LPs or 45's. With all the instant, omnipresent and cheap music now available, does anyone take the time to stop everything and disappear into a stereo "sweet spot" anymore? I tried the iPod approach, and found it annoying.
I thought about decorating my "listening room" a bit, but then thought better of the idea. Any pictures or artwork would diffuse my concentration, besides, I usually listen at night, with the lights out. I don't do marathon sessions anymore, a wooden chair is comfortable enough, I don't want to fall asleep. I can nap to music in the computer room. I'll only listen to a disc or two, and put them away afterwards, keeping the room almost barren: four speakers, an integrated amplifier, an EQ unit, a CD player and a turntable.
What used to be an expensive hobby (as far as equipment was concerned) is now cheap (all of this gear was thrifted or free.) The other factor in the equation is time, and time has become (for me, a least) a most valuable commodity.
Catch Sharon every Friday at FITK
Used by permission
The bar, like so many others on this small Caribbean isle, was little more than a square shack, open on three sides, with a small kitchen in the back. The early afternoon sunlight poured relentlessly down on the rusty tin roof. I dashed underneath to avoid the ultraviolet deluge.
"You look like a man in need of a drink," the barmaid said, her raspy voice suggesting years spent in a intimate relationship with cigarettes and whiskey. "Had a hard night?"
Yes, I did have a hard night- sleepless in what should have been paradise. Roosters, confused by the street lights, thought it prudent to crow throughout the wee hours. In my half-sleep, their cries turned into the cries of slaves being beaten on the sugar plantations. That had been long ago, but perhaps not that long.
"You're pretty observant. I couldn't sleep. I better have a hamburger and a Coke instead."
"Bad dreams, huh?"
"How long do you think spirits hang around? A year? Ten years? 200 years?"
"If it is anything like a bad love affair, it's as long as they suffered. One year, a one year hangover. You must be a 'sensitive'..."
"Yeah, a sensitive... yeah, that's it, I must be a sensitive"
"You don't like it here, do you?"
"It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I just don't want to die here."
Three Twixt Twelve and Twenty
Ethan and Joel Coen with Hailee Steinfeld on the set of True Grit
"When girls design their own clothes, write their own stories, produce their own music, movies and television, then the idea of girl culture will be a reality."
When I wrote that in regards to "Girl Culture" in 2005, I believed it was coming, but I couldn't tell exactly when. It may be here now. Last Saturday I saw a 13 year old girl, Hailee Steinfeld, star in the Coen Brother's latest film True Grit. The Coens' are possibly the finest technical directors working today, and are without a doubt masters of screenplay writing, so when Joel says of Hailee; "To have that kind of calm and confidence … it's a difficult combination to put together..." you can appreciate the feat she has accomplished. As great as Hailee's performance is, it is part of a greater whole- the Charles Portis novel, the Coen brothers considerable experience, and all of the cast and crew who make a film come into being. Interviews with cast members invariably mention how poised and prepared Hailee was, how she actually became the center of the film, and especially how she handled the demanding dialog with a perfect delivery.
In the case of the Icelandic duo Pascal Pinon, their self-produced album (done when they were 14) is an artistic step beyond, in that it was created without any outside input. Most of the songs were written by Jófriður Ákadóttir, who plays guitar and sings, with her twin sister Ásthildur harmonizing and playing keyboards. In interviews Jófriður comes across as a well-grounded, mature artist (and there aren't many of those in pop-music at any age!) At a time when I find myself hard pressed to find any new worthwhile music, these young women have put out a whole album of listenable, memorable and meaningful tunes. Jófriður is sixteen now- is she already too 'old?' (Not to worry- Pascal Pinon has another album in the can, recorded when they were 15!)
My third example of a girl-prodigy is Tavi Gevinson, who, at the age of fourteen, may well be the most popular style and fashion blogger (of any age) in the world. Starting when she was eleven, and completely on her own (her parents found out about her blog when she asked them for permission to be in a New York Times article!), Tavi has a perfect understanding of what a blog is. She alternates writing, images and videos in a most engaging way. She transmits the freshness of the world as seen through a young person's eyes. She also seems pretty well grounded, although the world of fashion is so fickle I hope she doesn't burn out or become jaded.
These three young women are exceptional, no doubt. But next year there will be more, and more after that, and as they all mature who knows what wonders they will produce? When world culture includes all these viewpoints, from almost all ages and both genders naturally, we'll all be the richer for it.